Educators, community chime in on teacher recruitment, retention

Dozens of educators, along with a handful of parents and community members, gathered Tuesday night in Jefferson City to hear about the State Board of Education's latest plans to address the "crisis" of teacher recruitment and retention in Missouri.

Several educators took the opportunity to voice concerns about the culture in Missouri schools and to ask how rural schools can keep up in terms of funding.

Missouri school districts' average hiring rate for the past six years has been about 11 percent, which reflects vacancies and turnover. That's three points above the national average of 8 percent.

Missouri produces about 3,500-3,600 new teachers each year, but Missouri has about 7,500-8,000 total vacancies. Missouri also has the lowest average starting pay in the country at $33,234.

"This is a problem, not for education -- this is a problem for our state, for our communities," said Mary Schrag, a member of the State Board of Education.

The Missouri Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission began meeting in June to search for solutions to the issue of recruitment and retention, finalizing its recommendations for Missouri school districts, the state education department and the state legislature in September. Presenters shared those recommendations at the meeting Tuesday night.

The recommendations were split into immediate, short-term and long-term priorities.

Immediate priorities are:

• Increasing the starting teacher salary to at least $38,000.

• Funding the Career Ladder program.

• Establishing grant funding for district Grow Your Own Programs, which are designed to recruit teachers from within the community.

Short-term priorities include:

• Establishing a fund to support districts increasing teacher salaries.

• Increasing support for teacher mental wellness, including the option to use days off for wellness reasons.

• Offering student tuition assistance -- scholarships to students that are contingent on teaching a certain number of years after obtaining their degrees.

• Recommending that school districts explore the possibility of "team-teaching" through special permission waivers from the education department.

Long-term priorities are:

• Allowing salary supplements for high-need positions by discussing stakeholder support for a constitutional amendment that would allow stipends and bonuses for teachers.

• Allowing salary supplements for teachers who gain National Board Certification.

Presenters from the state board and Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven told the assembled educators and community members that they could help by elevating the teaching profession, encouraging future educators, offering their time to public schools, and sharing the information from the meeting with others.

State Board Member Don Claycomb said he had recently attended some athletic events in the Jefferson City School District in which student athletes honored teachers who had impacted them. As the announcer read the students' comments about how their chosen teacher had impacted them, Claycomb thought the event must prove inspiring to those considering being a teacher.

"And it elevated, without a doubt, I think, the teaching profession in Jefferson City, as well as maybe it sparked somebody along the way. That doesn't cost money," he said.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, attendees asked about how the state can provide for increased teacher pay and school funding without leaving rural districts behind.

Kari Monsees, deputy commissioner of the Division of Financial and Administrative Services at the state education department, said the recommendations could lead to increased funding for things like the Career Ladder program and teacher pay to lessen the financial burden for local districts.

He also pointed out the short-term recommendation to establish a fund to support increasing salaries, which could "balance the scales" by providing money that could be used where it is needed.

He also cited the addition of $200 million to the transportation formula, which ought to free up money for school districts to spend in other areas. If that money continues to come through in the future, it could give districts more options, he said.

Commissioner Vandeven said she could not speak for the governor, but she had seen he seemed to be committed to looking for local contributions in addition to state funding on many projects.

"I don't see some of that local commitment piece going away in the near future," Vandeven said.

Educators also asked about how the state would address culture and climate in schools, another factor that many believe plays into teacher recruitment and retention.

Schrag said teachers are front-line witnesses of a trend.

"Civility has diminished" in general in today's society, Schrag said.

Mark Walker, chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said the commission was focused on transformation first through "small wins" and later through "big wins."

Culture and climate is a "big win" he said, but many of the recommendations address small wins.

"I think these recommendations get us those building blocks to lead to great places to work," Walker said.

Culture and climate was also a popular topic during the commission meetings, but members of the committee also said they wanted to address "low-hanging fruit," such as teacher salaries as a recommendation starting point.