District working to hire, retain quality staff

Published 12:01 am Saturday, December 22, 2007

NATCHEZ — The new administrative trio at Robert Lewis Middle School walked into a school in turmoil late this summer.

The previous year saw two head principals, a student riot and continued academic struggles.

By the time Sekufel Lewanika and his assistants Pete Peters and Levi Robinson were in place, some teachers had already decided they wouldn’t be back at RLMS the next year.

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The reasons varied — a few said they felt unsafe at the school and others had personal conflicts.

For longtime Spanish teacher Judy Smith, it was time for a break.

Smith relocated to Natchez after Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm she suffered through the deaths of family member after family member.

“I was drained,” she said. “I decided I was going to take a break and just leave for awhile.”

But Smith is a good teacher, and the new RLMS staff knew they needed her, Lewanika said. So they did everything just short of getting on their hands and knees.

“The assistant principal asked me to come back,” Smith said. “He said ‘I really need you.’ And I just love the children, so I did. At least for this year.”

The shortage

It wasn’t that the new principals at RLMS wanted to deprive Smith of a well-deserved break. They just simply had to have her.

The education schools at state universities aren’t producing enough graduates to fill all the openings in Mississippi, Natchez Superintendent Anthony Morris said.

And schools out of the state can offer more money and better benefits.

The result leaves districts such as Natchez-Adams fighting for every teacher they get.

“It’s a challenge,” Human Resources Manager John Sullivan said.

“It’s a very competitive market nowadays.”

But that’s a challenge Sullivan likes, he said. He recently returned from three recruiting trips, looking for December graduates to fill positions that will be open in the Natchez schools in January.

Sullivan visits between 10 and 12 colleges and universities a year, attending job fairs and meeting with candidates.

The district advertises openings monthly on its own Web site and on the state Department of Education’s site.

“We don’t just wait until we have a vacancy,” Sullivan said. “We are recruiting when we know we’ll have some that will retire or relocate.”

And the district must hire teachers with the proper license and certification.


Sullivan said he routinely sits at the recruiting table with schools offering a $6,000 signing bonus on top of checks higher than the one’s Natchez can give.

Sullivan can’t offer that, but he does talk up what he’s got.

Private donors in town have contributed to a signing package that covers moving expenses and offers some breaks on utility starts.

“And Natchez has its benefits too,” Sullivan said.

He always talks to candidates with the city’s visitnatchez.com Web site up on a computer next to him. It attracts some eyes, and he spends time telling each passing candidate about the quality of living in the Miss-Lou.

Calling in backup

In a day and age where new teachers just aren’t as abundant as they once were, the Natchez schools have turned to the tried and true to get the job done.

Teachers who have retired from the Natchez schools, or from schools in nearby counties or Louisiana are often targeted to come back to work.

It didn’t take any hoops to get to Cindy Willis though.

Willis taught in the Natchez schools from 1981 to 2002, then retired from Mississippi and went to work in Louisiana.

But it just wasn’t what she wanted.

So this year, Willis is back at RLMS teaching special education.

“I like this district,” she said. “I like their values, and I like how the organization is run.”

The Natchez schools often frequently look to teachers who retire in Concordia Parish, Morris said.

“If we weren’t right on the state line and couldn’t get Louisiana teachers when they retire, we’d be in bad shape,” he said.

Keeping what you’ve got

Teacher recruitment will always be a part of the school district’s challenges, but the blow is lessened when they focus on teacher retention, Morris said.

New teachers are immediately enrolled into a program aimed and developing and retaining them, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Tutor said. They meet monthly with administrators to review classroom issues and lessons. Many are partnered with mentors — teachers who’ve been in education for a while.

But maybe the district should consider other options too, Smith said.

At her district in New Orleans, teachers were offered a paid sabbatical every three years for half a year. Their pay was cut to 75 percent, but teachers could use the time for rest and relaxation or to go back to school.

Smith never took advantage of it, but she wishes she had now.

Teachers need that break, she said. They need time to rest their minds and prepare for a new set of students.

Smith’s idea may not be practical in smaller district, she said, but it is worth consideration as the Natchez schools face the challenge of retaining quality educators.