Sunday focus: Natchez, other districts in state struggle to find certified teachers

Published 12:32 am Sunday, January 28, 2018


NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams School District and other districts across the state are facing a common problem: teacher shortages.

The number of new teaching licenses the Mississippi Department of Education confers each year has nearly halved in the last decade.

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In 2007, the department granted 4,220 licenses to new teachers in Mississippi. In 2016, only 2,515 licenses were presented to new Mississippi teachers.

And the low number of licenses in 2016 — the last available data point from the MDE — is not an aberration from the norm.

Instead, it is the latest in a progression of the consistently decreasing number of new teachers entering the workforce each year.

For schools like those in Natchez-Adams School District, the lack of new, qualified teachers presents a problem.

“Our teachers are getting older,” said Fred Butcher, superintendent of the Natchez school district. “And fewer and fewer licensed educators are coming each year.”

The Natchez-Adams School District was put on probationary status by the Mississippi Department of Education in October 2017 for lack of licensed professional staff working in the classrooms.

The Natchez district was among 17 other districts put on probation following the 2016-2017 report, 12 of which were also cited for lack of licensed professional staff teaching.

Butcher said 16 unlicensed teachers were working in the district in the 2016-2017 year, as well as a teacher who was teaching outside of her certification.

“For the last two years, we have had to staff schools without certified teachers,” Butcher said.

The problem, he said, is not simply in the number of licenses being conferred each year, but that the number of students graduating in education has dwindled.

“We found at most of our universities, the numbers are constantly decreasing for folks that are going into the education department,” Butcher said. “The numbers have begun to get smaller and smaller. Since I’ve been recruiting in this job, I’ve been to several universities myself because of the teacher shortage.”

Though each college varies, many Mississippi universities are seeing a downturn in education degrees.

In the 2012-2013 year, The University of Southern Mississippi graduated 447 students in the Education and Psychology Department.

In the 2016-2017 school year, only 367 new educators graduated.

The University of Mississippi conferred only 264 education degrees in the 2014-2015 school year, which is the last year data is publicly available.

In the 2009-2010 school year, Ole Miss awarded 292 degrees in education.

Mississippi State University is the only major state college to see an upturn in education degrees, with 615 graduates from its College of Education in 2016-2017 and 548 in the 2006-2007 year.

In what feels like an ever-shrinking pool of new educators, Butcher said there is no immediate solution.

“Even if today or tomorrow, the MDE decided to increase the pay or give scholarships to folks interested in education,” Butcher said, “you’re talking about a four-and-a-half to five-year process before you could really see the impact.”

Studying the problem

Before considering any long-term solutions, Butcher and other district administrators have been studying the problem.

Deputy Superintendent Zandra McDonald said the primary issue challenging school districts that seek new teachers is also the most-expected one: Low salaries.

“Increased pay — that would be a way to draw more people into education,” McDonald said. “Right now, an educator can leave Mississippi, go into Tennessee and make what is comparable to an administrator’s salary in Mississippi. We have to be able to be competitive with the states surrounding us.”

A secondary factor McDonald and Butcher hope will increase the likelihood of new teachers being drawn to Natchez is the recently improved state accountability rating the school district received.

“Our scores have improved; hopefully, that would help us to attract new teachers,” Butcher said.

In reviewing Mississippi schools on probation in the 2016-2017 report, very few of the state’s lowest-performing schools were actually on probation for lack of certified teachers.

Of the 10 lowest-performing elementary, middle and high schools listed by Walt Drane, executive director of student assessment and accountability at the MDE, only three schools were in districts on probation.

Other districts performing better than the Natchez-Adams School District, still had problems attracting certified teachers.

If Natchez has neither competitive wages or a high ranking to draw in new teachers, Butcher said it is best to look for a temporary solution until a long-term fix may be developed.

“Right now, a temporary solution would be if a teacher retires and wants to come back to work, I think they should be able to come back to work immediately,” Butcher said. “(They should be able to) enjoy their retirement and at the same time, be able to earn a new check.”

A Mississippi law prohibits retired teachers from coming back to work within 90 days of their retirement and limits the amount of work a retiree can do to 90 days per school year.

These limitations, Butcher said, mean a willing workforce cannot be employed where it is desperately needed.

If these changes to retirement restrictions could be enacted, Butcher said the department of education could focus on long-term solutions to the teacher shortage — such as increased incentives for education majors and more efficient pathways to licensure.

Until that happens, however, Butcher said he and McDonald are working hard to fill the 16 spots available at the school.

Butcher said he sends a representative of the district to colleges and career fairs as often as possible. The representatives go with a contract in hand, ready to sign on a new educator, if one is found.

And they are making progress.

“We just hired five new teachers,” Butcher said.

Three of the new hires will be able to stay on long-term, but two of the new hires are retirees who can only work for the next three months.

Once that temporary solution has passed, the Natchez-Adams School District will be back in the same predicament: searching for educators where there are few to be found.