Rural teacher shortage getting worse

Rural schools sometimes rely on alternative certification programs to fill staffing needs. In this May 2016 file photo, Teach for America math teacher Hailey Vinchiarello teaches a class at St. Stephen Middle School in Berkeley County. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Ten thousand dollars will buy you a lot in Gaffney. 

It's a down payment on a house. It's half of the per-capita income in the area.

And it's what the Cherokee County School District is willing to pay as a signing bonus for a certified teacher.

"We face the same problem every other district faces with math and science teachers. I mean, you can’t keep them," said Johnny Sarratt Jr., chairman of the Cherokee County School Board. "It’s a way we’re trying to move teachers and maybe get some good teachers, maybe to get a fresh start in a new district. Why not Cherokee County?"

Faced with a persistent and worsening teacher shortage, school districts around South Carolina have been ratcheting up recruitment efforts in recent years. Cherokee County's singing bonus of up to $10,000, which applies to new hires in specific high-demand positions and requires a two-year commitment, is one of the more aggressive recruiting tactics in a state that ranks 38th in average teacher salary.

A study out this month from the state-funded Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement at Winthrop University brings more bad news for schools around South Carolina, particularly in high-poverty and rural areas, such as Cherokee County. The Fall 2016 Supply and Demand Survey found that nearly 6,500 teachers did not return to their current jobs for the 2016-17 school year. That figure is up 21 percent compared with the year before.

The most common reasons that teachers gave for leaving their jobs were taking a teaching position in another South Carolina school (25 percent), personal choice (23 percent) and retirement (18 percent). Even when teachers move around within the state, the report found the damage can be "extreme" for districts that consistently lose teachers to "more preferred districts."

The study also looked at classroom job vacancies that remained open at the start of the 2016-17 school year, expressed in full-time equivalents. Just over half of the 481 reported vacancies in the state were in two regions: The Pee Dee and the Lowcountry.

"Both regions have districts that experience excessive teacher turnover as well as high levels of poverty," the report said.

When shortfalls arise, school districts get creative to fill the need. Of the 6,900 full-time-equivalent positions filled by newly hired certified teachers this year, 433 came from alternative certification programs, such as the state-run Program of Alternative Certification for Educators, national American Board Certification of Teacher Excellence or national Teach for America organization.

At the same time, 209 teaching positions in the state were left vacant at the start of the school year by teachers with alternative certifications. The bulk of those teachers left the job within their first five years.

"For the folks who stay, it’s great, but for the folks who don’t, every several years there’s another vacancy to fill," said Jennifer Garrett, coordinator of research and program development at CERRA.

High-turnover districts including Dorchester 4, Jasper, and Orangeburg 4 and 5 qualified for extra state funding last year under the new Rural Teacher Recruiting Initiative, which they have spent on PACE-related fees, mentor support and salary stipends for critical-needs subjects. Garrett said it's too early to judge the results of that program.

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said she sees a need to "recognize and uplift the teaching profession" and encourage more young people to pursue a career in education. A previous CERRA report from 2016 found that South Carolina's colleges and universities are not producing enough education graduates specializing in the subject areas of greatest need.

"We will continue to review and make common-sense changes to our certification regulations, promote and expand our state and district alternative certification programs, and work closely with our educator preparation programs to ensure they are preparing graduates with the tools necessary to effectively teach in the rural and high poverty areas of our state," Spearman said in an email response.

Meanwhile, local school boards are finding ways to attract new teachers. The Charleston County School District plans to offer a starting salary bump of nearly $5,000 this year for qualified teachers coming to work at one of 12 "Top Talent" schools, including Chicora Elementary and St. John's High, that have suffered from recurring teacher shortages.

In Cherokee County, the school board hopes that an eye-popping up-front bonus will bring some much-needed reinforcements into classrooms.

"The money may lure them, but hopefully we get some good teachers out of the deal who want to stay around longer than two years," Sarratt said.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.