CLARKSDALE – The questions at a recent Coahoma County Public School Board of Trustees meeting came quickly from Board President Patrick Campbell.
“Are we looking [for teachers]? Is anyone applying or what?” Campbell asked, his voice firm, yet persistent. “Are we just keeping some folks in place?”
“Because I know some folks at Friars Point [Elementary School] who have been there and can’t get no certification,” Campbell continued. “So, what are we doing to change that?”
Campbell’s questions illustrated his frustration and gave voice to concerns about the teacher shortage in the district and how it is affecting students.
It is a discussion that could be occurring in any number of school districts across the state where the shortage of teachers is affecting classroom performance. And as it did at this meeting, it leads to more conversation about what teachers and administrators are doing to try to curb that impact.
It is an issue that hits home hard, especially here, where officials are working to lift their district’s state accountability ratings.
Friars Point Elementary principal LaTasha Turner responded to Campbell’s questions by saying the school has provided training for those individuals without certification.
Superintendent Xandra Brooks-Keys mentioned that the district is attending recruitment programs, but noted that teachers aren’t available.
Crystal Hall-Gooden, principal of Lyon Elementary, argued that they are keeping those teachers who are growing students’ performance. She said they are constantly pouring money into teachers for professional development.
“I understand that, but if you can train them, why can’t they train themselves to go take that test?” said Campbell. “How long are we going to continue to hold on to people when we can move on?”
The Mississippi Critical Teacher Shortage Act of 1998, HB609, gives full scholarships to full-time and part-time college students to teach in shortage areas.
Coahoma County is one of 48 districts in the critical teacher shortage areas across the state. As of 2017-2018, the district has 117 teachers. Of those, 22, or 19% are non-certified; 75, or 64% hold traditional licenses; 15, or 13% have alternate licenses; and 5, or 4% have both traditional and alternate licenses, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education.
Currently, the district has 17 teacher openings, and they would like to fill those positions, said Lakeda Harris, personnel manager, in a phone call with Mississippi Today.
Adrienne White-Hudson, founder of RISE, Inc., a nonprofit organization that focuses on improving education in high poverty areas, said teacher shortage in rural areas has always been a problem that has turned into a vicious cycle.
Not only is recruiting teachers paramount for this area, but retaining the teachers you already have is just as important, she said in a telephone interview with Mississippi Today.
In her opinion, there aren’t enough people, community members and school officials, calling state legislators, talking with the Mississippi Department of Education, and advocating for their schools, said White-Hudson.
“We need people fighting other than the school system because they are so wrapped up in not being a D or F and putting that advocacy piece to the side,” she said. “Everyone knows there’s a teacher shortage, but there’s not a lot being done to deal with this problem from a policy standpoint.”
In the Critical Teacher Shortage Act, the Education Department is supposed to have a staff of three that works in these areas to recruit people and set up programs. However, there is currently one person tasked with the job, said White-Hudson.
“We need to reevaluate the standards in the critical teacher shortage areas and put the focus on developing teachers and giving them feedback and not put all the weight on how [candidates] do on the Praxis (standardized test for teacher certification) that in my opinion is very biased for people in rural areas,” she said.
She emphasized that its time to make a difference to change the trajectory of this data by changing the policy.
This year, the Coahoma County School District received a D in the state’s school district assessments, an improvement over 2016 when it received an F, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. The grades for individual schools are: Sherard Elementary, B; Friars Point Elementary, C; Jonestown Elementary, D; Lyon Elementary, D; and Coahoma County Jr/Sr High, F.
The principals from each school in the district presented their student achievement reports from the second benchmark assessments at the meeting where Campbell raised his questions. The results showed that overall, the students showed small growth, little to no growth, or maintained where they were in the different subject areas.
All principals noted that their students decreased in test scores during this second assessment period. For most schools, math was the subject area where students decreased, or showed no growth.
Since the loss of a math teacher at Friars Point Elementary, the shortfall fell on fourth graders and the bottom twenty-five percent students, said Turner. This caused them to not meet their goals.
Turner said they’ve hired a licensed math teacher, changed students’ schedules to take math earlier in the day, included more interventions for students to receive more help, and received guidance from a consultant to ensure they reach their goals.
Hall-Gooden, principal of Lyon Elementary, said she experienced a decline in scores with her fourth grade students, too. Since school has started back, she said she’s now in the classroom early in the morning assisting teachers with students.
“Its only our third day doing this, but I see a difference in the students’ understanding,” said Hall-Gooden at the January board meeting. “They are able to give feedback and answer questions. So I’m hopeful we will see some good benefits from doing that.”
School board members asked why students aren’t progressing at a faster rate.
The answers were consistent from the principals: there is a lack of certified teachers and not enough additional support in the classrooms which causes excessive class loads, the principals say.
Charlette Harris, principal of Jonestown Elementary, said for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, there’s one math teacher, one ELA teacher, one science teacher, and one social studies teacher.
“That’s a lot,” she said. “It’s a challenge, but we couldn’t find a person to replace that and I didn’t want to place a substitute in an area that’s so delicate. We get in there and not only put the load on [teachers], but the load falls on [administrators] as well.”
Hall-Gooden mentioned that in her building she doesn’t have any long-term subs, and she has 100 percent certified staff in her school, but she mentioned the class load is a bit much on teachers.
Adding additional support in the classrooms, such as teacher assistants to help with interventions, would be helpful, said Hall-Gooden. Harris said that teacher assistants salaries are $12,500.
“We do interventions, but with more support we could make those groups smaller and add more individualized support … and really target those areas,” said Hall-Gooden.
“We’re doing it and we’re seeing some growth, but one-on-one is always better because you’re able to give the [students] more attention. … We gotta meet our goal. We can’t be a D again.”
Lawmakers this legislative session filed multiple bills attempting to address teacher shortages and licensing.
To address teacher shortage, State Rep. Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale proposed a bill, HB160, that would allow teachers to receive a license even if they don’t meet all of the state’s required standards. That bill died when it did not move out of committee this week.
In addition to Paden’s bill, there were several bills surrounding teacher licensure in efforts to add additional routes to get a license, including HB105, proposed by State Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula. The measure, which also did not make it out of committee, would have allowed for a nontraditional teaching route license if someone has an advanced degree and has passed both Praxis I and II exams.
*Editor’s Note: Sherard Elementary School and Friars Point Elementary School school ratings were initially incorrect. The story has been updated to reflect the current ratings.