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Districts create easier teacher pathways to solve shortages

At the start of the 2018-19 school year, Polk County Public Schools in Florida had 120 unfilled teaching positions. The district of more than 100,000 students grows each year, yet fewer teachers are entering the field now than in the past, and competition to hire newly minted educators is stiff, says Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd.

To attract more young people to the profession, Byrd recently launched Establishing Leaders in Teacher Education (ELITE). Through the program, high school sophomores take teacher education classes and earn an associate degree along with a high school diploma.

Graduates can then attend nearby Polk State College to earn their bachelor’s degree in just two years, and return to the district as teachers.

“We can’t continue to sit by,” Byrd says. “If we all begin actively trying to combat the teacher shortage, maybe at some point, we can close the gap and help local colleges produce the teachers we need in our classrooms.”

A national crisis

Many other districts struggle with massive teacher shortages. Teacher education enrollment dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the latest available data from the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute. Nearly 8 percent of teachers leave the workforce every year—the majority before retirement age.

Low salaries, dismal job satisfaction rates, decreased education funding and a general devaluing of the profession detract future teachers and impede retention, says Erin McHenry-Sorber, an assistant professor at West Virginia University’s College of Education and Human Services.

State policymakers often try to fix teacher shortages with blanket policies, but administrators report that one-size-fits-all solutions often do not work, McHenry-Sorber says.

For example, some areas see educator deficits due to drops in town industries and populations, while other areas experience increases in student populations that current teaching staffs can’t manage, she adds.

Administrators can partner with local universities, nonprofits and state associations to address local hiring issues.

“Once we begin to really pay attention to the needs and experiences at the district level, we’ll have a much more nuanced and accurate portrait of the teacher shortage—and what responses or policy solutions will have the greatest promise,” McHenry-Sorber says.

Solutions in Mississippi

Mississippi faces a stark teacher shortage, with starting salaries of $35,000 at the lower end of the scale. In 2017, just 603 people applied for a teaching license in the state—down from 7,620 in 2007, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

William Carey University, a private college in Hattiesburg, aims to fill gaps by working with more than a dozen districts statewide. It offers free or low-cost paths for students and teaching assistants to enter the teaching profession.

In one program starting this fall, teaching assistants can finish their education degree at a 50 percent tuition discount.

In another, the college will help Pearl River Community College students finish their third and fourth years of teaching education on the community college campus in Poplarville, Mississippi, with reduced tuition if they teach in one of three county schools upon graduation.

An alternative certification partnership with Meridian Public School District in the eastern part of the state allows teacher candidates to take two prep courses at William Carey University for free, and then get hired in the district.

Twenty-five people participated last year, and as of August, more than half had been hired, says Ben Burnett, dean of the university’s school of education.

“We do have a large number of people in the workforce who would be interested in becoming teachers,” Burnett says. “We have to work with local districts to identify them and to find creative ways to make it happen.”