Jackson Public School District was facing a teacher shortage crisis several years ago, not unlike many districts across the state.
In Mississippi’s second largest school district, hundreds of teacher positions were unfilled, and many of the educators in the district were either uncertified or teaching outside of their content area.
But in recent years, the district took advantage of statewide initiatives and implemented its own incentives to combat the problem. The number of “limited service” teachers, or those with college degrees in a subject but who have not obtained a traditional teaching license or those with licenses who are teaching outside of their certification area, dropped from 184 in 2018 to 29 in 2021, according to recent data.
In addition, the number of overall vacant or unfilled teaching positions dropped from 246 in 2018 to 75 in 2021. While enrollment has declined drastically in the district, the reduced number of students is only a small part of the picture, district officials say.
Wingfield High School math teacher Brittney Friday said for years she struggled with passing the Praxis, a required test for teachers to be certified, and had health issues that negatively impacted her efforts. But with the help of the district and private tutoring, she passed the Algebra 1 portion of the test last September.
She’s now working on her master’s degree and completing her remaining license requirements at the University of Mississippi, which partnered with the district to offer free tuition in exchange for a commitment to teach in the district for three years after graduation.
“I had support from my principal … pushing me to go ahead and get certified. My math coaches and district-level officials like Mr. (Tommy) Nalls stayed on me about getting my certification,” Friday said, referring to the district’s full-time teacher recruiter, Nalls.
Now, she said, she is attending Ole Miss for free and learning real-life skills that translate to the classroom. During one of her courses, a professor visited her class and offered feedback on her teaching practices. Another course she’s taking is helping her learn more about Individualized Education Programs (IEP), or the academic plans developed for students with special needs.
Once she finishes her requirements, she will be issued a standard license. And when she has her master’s degree, she will get an increase in pay as a result.
Friday is the quintessential example of the teacher the school district is looking to help get certified — the more they can help teachers who are already in the district achieve those three- and five-year licenses, Nalls and JPS Chief of Staff Michael Cormack said, the more likely they are to be able to retain them for a longer time period.
From spring of 2019 to spring of 2021, 480 teachers requested special non-renewable licenses, which are conditional, temporary licenses for first-year teacher teachers in the process of obtaining certification. The district assisted 246 of those 480 in transition to three or five-year traditional educator licenses. Of those 246 teachers, 216 stayed in the district and are committed to return next year, Cormack said.
The district has also implemented efforts to ramp up teacher recruitment from outside of its schools, either those from other areas or those who have recently graduated from a program.
District officials also implemented a $5,000 signing bonus for new teachers. The payment is spread out over the course of three years to ensure the teacher stays, and the district is considering increasing the bonus to $7,500 for certified teachers in the district’s highest areas of need: elementary education, math, special education and English as a Second Language.
Altogether, the efforts have resulted in the district moving from the district filling 87% of its staffing capacity in 2018 to nearly 96% in March of 2021.
They are also looking to help current teacher assistants become teachers, especially in areas like special education where the need is critical.
“We had 82 assistant teachers in special education, and when we did a deeper dive, nearly 30 of them had a bachelor’s degree,” Cormack said. “ … We are pairing them with the coursework that’s necessary to become certified teachers. For single parents and folks on the lower end of the economic strata, to work one job that pays a living wage is transformative for both them and our students.”
Cormack and Nalls are confident the pandemic won’t erase the district’s progress.
“Very candidly, this has been a very challenging year,” said Cormack. “But we have not seen an uptick in number of retirements (of our teachers). Our staff has been incredibly resilient and adaptive to this crazy year. I think they’re looking forward with hope with vaccinations and getting back to in-person instruction and recapturing some of these learning opportunities.”