Help wanted: Districts dealing with dearth of teacher applicants
In 2012, St. Joseph-Ogden High School listed an opening for one PE teacher. More than 150 eligible candidates applied for the job.
Three years later, the district that's home to fewer than 500 students went looking for another gym teacher. The pool this time? Eighteen.
"This is a significant drop in the span of three years," said longtime SJ-O principal-turned-superintendent Brian Brooks.
"The stories I am hearing from other school districts within the past year in regards to the lack of applicants is extremely concerning for all schools moving forward and most importantly, very concerning for the students in those schools."
The story is a familiar one across East Central Illinois:
— Five years ago, the only teaching opening in the K-8 Prairieview-Ogden district attracted 60 applicants. Last year, only a "handful" of people applied for a classroom teaching job, PV-O Superintendent Vic White said.
— Last summer, few qualified candidates went after a high school Spanish teacher opening at Heritage, forcing Superintendent Tom Davis to get "aggressive" and eventually recruit a nonapplicant to come to Broadlands.
— Two people applied for a recent industrial technology teaching opening in Arthur.
— And a special education position with Rantoul City Schools stayed open throughout the first semester of this past school year before Superintendent Michelle Ramage filled it in January with a midyear graduate.
The rest of the state is suffering, too.
A 2015 survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools found that 60 percent of districts statewide ran into trouble trying to fill teaching positions, and 75 percent were seeing fewer qualified candidates apply for teaching gigs than in years past.
At the beginning of the spring semester, there were 17 open classroom teacher positions across Champaign, Ford, Douglas, Piatt and Vermilion Counties, which pushed some area administrators to cancel classes or fill the positions with long-term substitutes.
The cause of the shortage is multifaceted, according to Amme Adkins, associate dean of Illinois State University's College of Education. Resembling other education schools nationwide, hers has experienced a 20 percent decline in the number of students enrolled since 2011-12.
"It's a nasty combination — the 2008 market crash and recession, the pension crisis in Illinois, the move to raise the retirement age to 67 and the generally negative discourse about teachers and teaching," she said. "Not much there to encourage young people to choose a career in education, right?
"The fact that we still don't have a state budget certainly does nothing to help the situation."
Rural vs. urban
The IARSS survey included information from 538 districts across Illinois, excluding Chicago Public Schools. What it reveals: districts in rural areas and across portions of central Illinois reported the largest decline in the number of candidates applying for openings.
That's hardly a shock to Westville Superintendent Seth Miller, who heads up a 1,300-student district in rural Vermilion County. At the start of last school year, roughly 29 percent of his staff was either brand-new or working in a new position, which he estimates will "quickly become more of the norm."
"It's not because people are running from Westville," he said. "Every rural district has its challenges."
Miller says he does whatever he can to attract and retain quality teachers, which often means purchasing the most up-to-date tech devices for new hires. The entire district is a "wireless campus," he said.
Each teacher is given a personal iPad or laptop, and all classrooms come equipped with Smartboards, as well as classroom sets of Macbooks, Chromebooks or iPads.
"We try to be creative and make sure if people want to come to Westville, they will have access to the best technology out there. That's something that some suburban schools can't provide for everyone," he said.
"Great teachers are our first goal. Technology won't supplant teachers, but if it can support and attract the right ones, that's what we've tried to do."
Unit 4's edge
While districts like Westville do their best to hang on to talent, the disparity in salary between small districts and larger ones remains a high hurdle.
In rural Fisher, the average salary for a first-year teacher is $35,927. Oakwood averages $31,500, Cerro Gordo $33,788.
Compare that to the $42,654 starting salary in Champaign's Unit 4 and it's easy to see the advantage urban districts have, says Ken Kleber, Unit 4's director of human resources.
Because of the "size and breadth" of Champaign's summer school program, the majority of the more than 50 teacher openings Unit 4 had in the springtime were temporary positions for the months of June and July, Kleber said.
While Kleber occasionally experiences difficulty filling speciality jobs — like, say, middle school French teacher — "being a big school is really to our advantage" overall.
"We are able to compete with some of the suburban schools. We live in a great town with a low cost of living and a good salary. That really attracts people," he said. "One of the only problems we have, and it's a good thing, we're on the cutting edge with some of our technology programming.
"The issue is, there aren't many teachers out there who are this advanced — yet."
In May 2017, Heritage High will lose one of its most veteran agriculture teachers. Instead of waiting until next spring to start looking to fill it, Davis and his staff began "discussing and exploring" the recruiting process 18 months out.
Over in Arcola, the district began a teacher exchange program with Spain five years ago. It paid immediate dividends — three educators have come to Amish country to teach Spanish and English as a second language courses. Without the program, Superintendent Tom Mulligan says, he's "not sure we would have had a qualified person in those positions."
But it's not just the specialty jobs that some rural districts have tough times filling. "Now, it's everything," said Tuscola Superintendent Michael Smith.
Rossville-Alvin Superintendent Crystal Johnson experiences the same issues as her rural school counterparts, forcing her to get creative.
She arranges her openings like musical chairs. This spring, the district was looking for a new science teacher, but in her online posting, she asked for a math teacher.
"I have the possibility of moving staff around here based on certification," she said. "For example, if I don't have a science applicant but have three math applicants, then I could possibly move one of the math teachers to science."
'Wake up, Illinois'
Gary Lewis is currently employed as a geometry, algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus and introduction to college algebra teacher at Bement High School.
He has a bachelor's degree in math (minor in chemistry) from Brigham Young; two master's in mathematics education from Ohio State; and a Ph.D. in education from Michigan State. He taught math at a magnet high school in Michigan for several years and spent six years teaching in ISU's College of Education.
But he's not qualified to get his permanent teaching license in the state of Illinois.
After he decided to leave ISU for a high school setting, Lewis submitted his paperwork to the state to get his teaching certificate, took a test (passed it "with flying colors") and submitted his transcripts.
His petition was denied, he was told, because he was missing four undergraduate courses on his transcript required for a teaching license in Illinois. Never mind that he taught the content of those same four courses during his time at ISU.
"The way the curriculum was laid out was not packaged the same as what the state is looking for," he said. "I've had experience in all of these areas they're looking for, it's just laid out differently."
So for now, Lewis is licensed with something called a provisional educator endorsement, due to expire in 2017. He has taken one of the four classes through Heartland Community College and plans to look into signing up for the others soon.
"The state is turning away these qualified teachers. I mean, I consider myself a qualified teacher. I taught future teachers for six years," he said.
Bement Superintendent Sheila Greenwood says the bulk of the blame for the issues facing district like hers lies with the state.
"Illinois makes it hard to become licensed, makes it hard to plan for a retirement, makes it hard to plan for continued employment," she said. "Our teachers are leaving the state and who could blame them? They have to teach until they are 67 to get a full retirement.
"There are exceptions to this rule, but 67-year-olds will have a tougher time relating to kids who are growing up two generations apart from them."
She says salaries are a big part of the problem, too.
"Wake up, Illinois," she said. "Value our educators again before it is too late."
A county-by-county look at how many teachers area districts anticipated needing to hire for the 2016-17 school year and summer school:
Rantoul City: 0
Rantoul High: 2
St. Joseph: 0
St. Joseph-Ogden: 1
Uni High: 0
*-20 are for summer school
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley: 2
Villa Grove: 1
Cerro Gordo: 3
Armstrong High: 1
Georgetown-Ridge Farm: 2
Hoopeston Area: 3
Salt Fork: 0