(The Center Square) – Ideas for recruiting and retaining teachers flow so quickly, Monica Landess always keeps paper and pen by her side.
“I have my list and it’s growing by the minute,” said Landess, the manager of talent acquisition and evaluation for Kansas City Public Schools.
Landess’ enthusiasm and creativity was spurred by a $50 million grant program announced in May by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to improve teacher recruitment and retention in school districts and charter schools. It was made possible by federal Covid-19 relief funds.
Every school district and charter school will be eligible for a $10,000 grant to start or expand a “Grow Your Own” (GYO) program to encourage high school students to earn an education degree and return to teach in their community. Plus, every school district and charter school will be eligible for a grant to recruit and retain teachers, ranging from $500 to $1,200 per teacher.
Susan Pendergass, director of research and education policy at the Show-Me Institute, supports district GYO initiatives, but believes should be spent solving problems caused by the pandemic.
“What we need to be doing, especially this year, is getting a handle on how much learning kids have been able do to the last year,” Pendergrass said. “We should be looking at ways to alleviate learning loss, which could be done with more tutoring and education hubs. We could be helping parents doing more educating of their own children. We need a lot in public education right now. Putting funding into teacher recruitment and retention isn’t connected to Covid at all.”
Restrictions to help ensure the health and safety of teachers, faculty, staff and students during the pandemic are influencing many teachers to retire or leave the profession. A survey in January by the Missouri State Teacher Association found approximately 57% of teachers were considering leaving the profession. Other research shows one third of teachers leave the profession in less than three years and almost 50% leave within five years.
The average starting salary for teachers in Missouri is $32,600 and the average salary is $51,980, according to the nonprofit organization, TEACH.org.
“It is critical that we address challenges in K-12 education now and help our future leaders successfully enter the workforce, which is why we are investing state relief dollars to recruit and retain the best and brightest educators in Missouri,” said Gov. Mike Parson in a release announcing the program.
DESE structured the grants to help fill positions in schools with high percentages of students of color and in poverty. Landess was amazed to see the Kansas City Public Schools would be eligible for approximately $1.4 million in grants.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Landess said. “This was an amazing amount.”
DESE used demographics and data from the Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) program to create three priority levels. The amount of available funding is determined by the priority level and multiplied by the number of teachers in the school district or charter school:
Level 1: 70 to 100% FRPL and 50 to 100% students of color – $1,200 per teacher
Level 2: 70 t 100% FRPL and 0 to 49% students of color – $800 per teacher
Level 3: 0 to 69% FRPL – $500 per teacher
Kansas City Public Schools are Level 1 with 87% of its students being of color and 100% eligible for FRPL. With 1,136 teachers, Kansas City Public Schools is eligible for grants worth approximately $1.36 million.
The funding breakdown for the three levels of school districts or charter schools will be:
Level 1: 38 eligible for $8.4 million
Level 2: 82 eligible for $4.8 million
Level 3: 428 eligible for 28.7 million
“To me,” Pendergrass said, “the money should be directed into the hands of parents and students to address the learning loss from the past year. I think we need a group of people helping to strategically plan the best use of this money. This seems like a nice program and it will help some people. But it’s teacher-centric and not student-centric.”
Pendergrass mentioned a program being developed where parents will receive money to pay a state-approved tutors to assist their children.
Doug Jacobson, superintendent of the Swedeborg R-III School District in Richland, hadn’t delved into all of the details of the program. DESE documents showed Swedeborg as one of the smallest in the state with eight teachers and 42 students – 42% in FRPL and 2% minority. The district will be eligible for $4,000 in retention grants and the $10,000 GYO grant.
“Recruiting teachers is always a challenge because of finances,” Jacobson said. “As small as we are, we are able to offer health insurance, which is kind of unusual for a district our size. That’s been a big help to attract and retain teachers.”
Education challenges in a small farming community can’t be compared to urban areas. However, school leaders agree they’re seeing turnover because of the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic has caused more people to retire or go to another occupation rather than fear of Covid itself,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson hopes funding can be used to reward teachers.
“We have people in our community who have farms and teach,” Jacobson said. “Those teachers tend to have a loyalty to the community, to the district and want to stay here. It would be helpful if we could put money into a fund and call it a stipend or incentive.”
DESE allocated approximately $5.5 million – $10,000 per school district or charter school – for grants to establish or expand GYO programs. Only 20% of school districts and charters school currently have a GYO and DESE hopes all will adopt the initiative. Studies found people often return to their hometowns to teach after earning education degrees and 60% of teachers work within 20 miles of where they attended high school.
The state would annually gain about 2,000 teachers if each district encouraged three to four high school students to become teachers.
“We have this program, but there’s a lot we can do to really improve it and use it as a pipeline for our students to go into education,” Landess said.
The GYO programs address teacher shortages and develop incentives to attract teachers. The initiative helps districts facing a shortage of teachers with proficiency in certain subjects or those where the location is a barrier in attracting candidates. The programs also focus on culturally diverse candidates and prepare teachers for urban schools.
“It would be best to put the money in the hands of where it’s going to make a difference and address actual problems,” said the Show-Me Institute’s Pendergrass, whose daughter teaches in the Denver Public Schools. “It’s a nice idea, but it’s not addressing the crisis situation we’re in right now. Kids this summer need summer school and tutoring. A lot of kids have dropped off the face of the Earth. We don’t know where they all are. We need to be making sure kids with IEPs (individual education plans) are getting all the services they need.”
Landess is currently searching for several bi-lingual math and science teachers for Kansas City schools. She plans on collaborating with leaders from her district and throughout the state on creative ways to find qualified teachers.
“We’ve got to find ways to go out and make the city schools appealing to our teachers across the nation,” Landess said. “What would it look like if we went to the Hispanic Association for College and Universities and offered classroom tours to meet our students? We could find out their needs and what would help them, like moving expenses. This grant could allow us to do that.”
Landess predicted continued cooperation and collaboration with urban, suburban and rural school districts to address the teacher shortage.
“By allocating money to every district and charter school and offering a wide range of recommended best practices to affect change in recruitment and retention, we are allowing local school leaders to determine the most appropriate course of action to meet their local needs,” Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said in a statement announcing the program. “…there is no better way to show our teachers that we care than with this commitment to supporting recruitment and retention efforts in every part of our state.”