Rural Schools Struggle to Attract Teachers

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Sep. 24, 2012 12:00 am  

The greatest social anchors of rural towns tend to be the schools, and schools can't exist without teachers.

But they are harder and harder to come by.

"Rural areas are losing jobs and population," said Bill Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Rural Education Association in Mena (Polk County). "Making a living is difficult. Out there, attracting teachers is a hard issue to deal with."

Finding doctors and bankers have also been issues in the rural parts of the state.

Schools seeking certified employees must find people who prefer the country, Abernathy said, then need to dress up the position, emphasizing living conditions and salaries.

"Growing your own is important," he said. "Over at Mena, where I live, when I first went over there back in 1972, it was very difficult to get teachers."

Abernathy said there wasn't much opportunity for students to become teachers without leaving town.

"But, I noticed in that community, we had a lot of bright young housewives with no opportunities," he said. "Their husbands worked at the banks, etc."

Those women gained more opportunity, Abernathy said, when Rich Mountain Community College was founded in Mena in 1983.

"That got them a start," he said. "We changed from not having enough students and teachers to having a pool that was pretty adequate."

Eventually, teacher salaries in the area rose from below the state average to, most recently, within the state's top 10.

Still, Mena and other rural districts are faced with convincing talented teachers to move into a remote area.

"Back in some years past, rural schools, many of them, had housing that they would furnish for teachers that would come trying to recruit them," he said. "That would be one incentive."

"It seems like we get less and less teachers in Arkansas, especially in math and science," said Tom Wilson, superintendent of the Barton-Lexa School District in south Arkansas. "Salary is always an incentive to go into a career, but I really enjoy young teachers coming here who love the profession and love kids."

Wilson's K-12 district has 850 students, and around 65 percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunch. The 50-teacher district is in the Mississippi River Delta near Helena-West Helena.

"It's hard to find really excellent teachers in this area," said Wilson. "We have to use more creative means around here."

Wilson said the school advertises online and participates in job fairs, typically garnering decent interest with the better-than-average salaries it can offer.

"One of the ways to get teachers into those areas is to pay them more," Wilson said. "Our base salary is presently $37,132. That's for a teacher with no experience."

Good salaries won't always bring in the talent, though.

"The only problem is that after the candidates see the salary, which is fairly high, when they find out where we're located, they drop interest," Wilson said. "Most of them live around the Little Rock area or are attending college somewhere else. It's kind of out of their abilities to drive back and forth."

What ends up happening, Wilson said, is multiple certifications for existing teachers.

"This past year, our chemistry, AP chemistry, life sciences and calculus teacher resigned," he said. "What happened was we had to utilize two existing teachers in their certification areas and assign them some of his classes.

"Then we had this situation recently: A teacher with 46 years of experience retired, but then she changed her mind and came back after we couldn't find a new English teacher. She retired again this year, and came back again."

Sometimes, Wilson said, the school asks teachers to get certified in other teaching areas to fill gaps that otherwise would be empty.

Teach for America, a program that recruits recent college graduates to at-risk and poverty-stricken school districts, has helped Wilson's district with the talent search, he said.

"We've hired at least three Teach for America teachers over the past three years," he said. "They've done a great job."

Most of them are ages 22-26 and unmarried, Wilson said, giving them the opportunity for full devotion to their job. But that devotion is temporary.

"Typically they do a three-year deal, but most leave after two years," Wilson said. "In our case, in those particular classrooms, usually test scores go up."

And the help isn't always a guarantee. For example, Mississippi's legislature recently pumped $5.5 million into Teach for America, the biggest contribution by any single state to the program. That means TFA will put more emphasis on Mississippi and fewer teachers will be available for Arkansas. Wilson said he hopes to work through that.

"The other day I saw on their website that they did speak before our legislators in Little Rock, and they talked to them about expanding their program and helping supply more teachers," he said. "You know, whoever is able to subsidize them the most gets the most teachers out of them."

Rural higher education suffers from the same issues. Arkansas State University's branch in Heber Springs searches nationwide for its professors.

"Most of our interests in doctorate-level folks are from out of state," said Vice Chancellor Chris Boyett.

Both of the school's recently hired doctorate-level professors moved from out of state, Boyett said, and he noted that one moved to Little Rock and commutes to Heber Springs.

In the end, it comes down to a balance of personal drive and being able to support oneself.

"Everybody has a career in mind," Wilson said. "Anybody can get a job, but what you really want is a career - something that can support your family and that you enjoy so you do a good job at it. You want to get into a career that you're going to enjoy the rest of your life."

 

 

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