A class of 20 kindergarteners at Frank West Elementary School repeated teacher Elaine White's every move -- with little instruction -- one recent Monday.
When she sang refrains of "Do you know the muffin man?" and "These are the months of the year," they sang along.
When she clapped two cylindrical wooden sticks, the kids clapped theirs. And when she dropped the sticks in a clear container and stopped singing, so did they.
They were signs of both good classroom management and a strong relationship between White and her students -- common characteristics of veteran teachers, said school Principal Yvonne Lopez.
But White, like many baby boomers before her, is retiring at age 58. After 30 years in the classroom, it's just time to leave, she says.
"There are more demands placed upon the classroom teacher than ever before," White said. "And it can be overwhelming."
Not only are veteran teachers leaving but so are a number of those with less than five years in the classroom, according to both local educators and national researchers.
At the same time, fewer aspiring teachers are entering preparatory programs here; enrollment in local schools is growing; and more districts are looking to reduce class sizes -- all leading local schools to conclude that they will need more teachers.
A 2008 study -- the latest available on the topic -- projected the Central Valley will experience some of the greatest demand for teachers in California by 2015-16. Kern County would need 1,657 teachers by 2015-16 based on student-enrollment projections and 2,115 teachers based on retirement projections.
The numbers -- which the nonprofit, public research and development agency WestEd compiled from about 11 years of earlier state retirement, finance and education data, place Kern County in the top quintile and at No. 6 on a ranked list of counties projected to experience the greatest need for teachers from 2005-06 to 2015-16.
There's also concern, both nationally and locally, that as new teachers replace veteran educators, students will have less access to the knowledge and expertise of experienced teachers.
Researchers disagree, though, about whether the greener workforce will improve or hinder student academic achievement.
TOUGHER STANDARDS, HARDER SELL
Superintendents say new statewide learning benchmarks known as Common Core State Standards may be causing some teachers who were considering retirement to do so sooner.
Common Core, similar to state standards adopted in 1997 in that they spell out what students should know in each grade, is otherwise a wholesale shift in what students are required to know and do. The English and math benchmarks adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Ken Bergevin, superintendent of the Richland School District in Shafter, said while Common Core is very promising as far as student outcomes are concerned, it is "a tremendous amount of work for teachers to learn and implement."
"Some teachers near the end of their careers may feel that it is too much of a paradigm shift to make and would consider it one more factor in a decision to retire," he said.
Educators said Common Core is a factor but not the crux of the matter.
One of White's theories is that greater and competing employment options for women -- who have made up about 73 percent of teachers in California -- are luring people out of the education field.
"In general, women can get jobs in business that 30 years ago, they couldn't," White said. "The doors weren't as wide open."
Barbara Mansfield, who retired from teaching last year after 27 years in the field, echoed both White's reasoning for retiring and her explanation of why other teachers are leaving the field.
Mansfield said high turnover is in part due to the unforeseen elements of teaching, especially in Kern County schools that have diverse student makeups.
New teachers weren't accustomed to educating children who were not supported by their families, lacked vocabulary skills and had short attention spans, she said. That -- coupled with what Mansfield called the "real hard work" of planning digital lessons and learning new computer programs as well as attending long meetings and extra training sessions -- has added to growing turnover in the field.
That turnover will only compound what local and state officials say is a growing demand for more teachers.
Steve Gabbitas, spokesman for the Bakersfield City School District, said BCSD --a district that currently employs 1,361 teachers -- is looking to hire about 150 educators for the next school year.
It will be the greatest wave of hiring BCSD -- the largest elementary district in the state -- has seen since the 2007 onset of the global financial crisis, according to estimates the California Department of Education reports yearly.
About 60 of the BCSD openings are due to natural fluctuations in employment like resignations and retirements, while about 90 are due to growth that Gabbitas said is projected to continue.
Problem is, Kern County schools are beginning to see an inability to meet that growing demand for teachers. The most telling sign is fewer teachers entering credential programs locally.
At Cal State Bakersfield, the number of students enrolled in their first credential programs to get multiple subject, single subject or special education credentials decreased from 1,112 in 2011-12 to 1,053 in 2012-13.
Similarly, the number of students entering teacher preparation programs statewide dropped from 44,558 in 2007-08 to 26,231 in 2011-12, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing's most recent report, released in April.
That decline is particularly high in special education and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) -- in which expertise can lead to greater pay outside of teaching.
Carl Kloock, a CSUB biology professor, said the starting salary for teachers is about $45,000 compared to about $80,000 for engineers fresh out of college.
"We're competing with industry," he said.
Kathleen Knutzen, dean of the school of social sciences and education at CSUB, said declining enrollment in teacher prep programs has also been a reaction to job cuts caused by the recession.
"Over that time period, there really weren't any jobs," she said.
Fewer jobs in teaching have led to declining interest in the field, said Andrea Medina, a program director of the math and science teacher institute at CSUB.
There's a general fear that the teaching profession is unstable because of frequent flowing pink slips during the recession.
"It's currently affecting us," Medina said.
Fear may have led to fewer college students interested in education, she added.
Knutzen said not nearly enough CSUB students are enrolling in credential programs for the first time.
"I really do think we're moving into a phase where we're going to need more teachers at all levels," Knutzen said.
That increasing demand might force districts to widen their searches for teachers out of state.
Greenfield Union School District Superintendent Chris Crawford said his district has not had to consider out-of-state candidates since about 2006 and district representatives have not traveled out-of-state to recruit candidates in at least 13 years.
"I'm hoping we don't have to, but we will," Crawford said.
He said that because states have different requirements to teach, schools may also have to cope with teachers who lack proper credentials to work in California. Travel would also tack on added expenses.
"There's time away from my district," Crawford said.
But even a dip into the national pool may yield few experienced teachers.
WILL STUDENTS FEEL IMPACT?
In many urban districts, more than half of teachers leave within five years, according to a national report released in March by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Teacher attrition increased by 41 percent from 1988 to 2008, "and now nearly a third of teachers leave the profession within the first three years of their careers," the Carnegie Foundation also said.
Susan Headden, senior associate for public policy engagement, wrote in the report that "the sheer number of novices in public school teaching has serious financial, structural and educational consequences for public education -- straining budgets, disrupting school cultures and, most significantly, depressing student achievement."
But Diane Cox, assistant superintendent of human resources in the Bakersfield City School District, said although local schools are noticing that influx of new teachers, teachers are well-prepared with knowledge of Common Core, technology and positive behavioral intervention training.
"So for us, we're excited about our new teachers and the services they can bring to our students," she said.
Aracely Meza, mother of a 6-year-old and 10-year-old student at Frank West Elementary, said both new and more experienced teachers have instructed her children.
She prefers the latter.
Meza reasoned -- no different from any other professional -- a teacher who newly enters the education field is troubleshooting, "experimenting."
A veteran teacher, like White, has years of varied experiences to tap into, she said.
Meza's younger son, Isaac, has what the mother called a speech problem that makes communication difficult and frustrating for him.
He finished kindergarten in White's classroom this year with stronger math skills, knowledge of the alphabet and having conquered reading.
Meza said she doesn't think her son would have been as successful if he had a less-experienced teacher.
She raised the inflection in her voice when she transitioned from her son's progress to his continued struggle.
"Sometimes he gets upset because he has speech problems," Meza said.
Without a second breath, she mentioned White.
"She has helped him move forward," the mother said.