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MERIDIAN, Miss. — Every school year, Meridian mom Cassandra Rhone worries her children’s teachers won’t have enough knowledge and experience.
“I don’t want my kids to have a long line of subs,” said Rhone, who has three children in Meridian’s public schools –— one in second-grade, one in seventh and one in twelfth. “They need teachers who have the right education and know what they’re doing.”
Rhone, who is studying to be a teacher, knows the difference. “They get a sub or someone without a credential and they don’t learn the same,” said Rhone. “They don’t get the work and they don’t get the homework. My kids –— and other kids — end up suffering.”
Rhone’s observations are in line with a recent state report, which shows students in low-income, predominantly black schools like Meridian’s are more likely to have rookie or un-credentialed teachers –— an experience that, when repeated, has been shown by experts to spell academic disaster for students. And that’s something Mississippi, which consistently finds itself behind nearly all other states in academic achievement, can ill afford.
What the state report found
The report was part of a U.S. Department of Education study that examined the reasons poor and minority students fail to get equal access to the best and most qualified teachers –— the lack of which remains a persistent problem in the state. It includes plans to address the inequities by promoting teaching as a profession in high school clubs and vocational programs, while calling for better college teacher education programs to help prepare educators for low-income and high-minority schools.
Mississippi’s teacher shortages mirror those in urban districts including Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas and Charlotte, N.C. Some handle the shortage by using use extra pay to lure teachers to struggling schools, while other districts are trying to strengthen ways to improve teacher education programs so teachers enter classrooms more prepared. In Mississippi, state and district officials are targeting recruitment efforts in areas with the most shortages –— and are encouraging teacher’s aides and even bus drivers to get their teaching credentials.
Some 17 percent of Mississippi teachers in low-income schools either lack credentials or are teaching out of their subject areas — compared with just 6 percent in areas with fewer minorities and higher-income students.
Thirty-nine percent of teachers in high-minority Mississippi schools have less than four years of experience, while rookie teachers make up just 15 percent of the teaching force at low-minority schools.
“We have had this challenge for a while,” said Cerissa Neal, who helped author the report as executive director of the Office of Educator Quality at the state’s department of education. “Some areas have more challenges … we know we need action and it needs to be centered in local communities.”
The shortage in particularly hard-to-staff districts has been apparent at recent state-sponsored teacher recruitment job fairs held in Jackson. School leaders in tough districts were working the room like frantic politicians, trying to draw potential teachers to visit their booths with offers of candy, water, and other freebies.
In Hazlehurst, a predominantly black, low-income district located about an hour’s drive from Jackson, Superintendent John Sullivan has learned how to play the recruiting game, competing aggressively for teachers who might initially be looking for jobs in higher income schools.
“I get to the recruitment fairs early,” Sullivan said with a sly smile. “I walk around and I find a district like Madison or Rankin County or maybe Pearl, and I set my table up right next to them. They will have long lines –— they always do. And while applicants are waiting in those lines, I’m there with a smile and a handshake. And I tell them about Hazlehurst.”
Sullivan is honest: When he talks to potential teachers he acknowledges the district’s previous academic and financial woes –— including a state takeover that began in 2008 and ended in July 2014. But he also talks about the benefits of working in a small district, and how much progress he believes has been made.
“Our community wants teachers to be successful,” Sullivan said. “This is a small district and we are improving. This is a place where they can come and be known in the community –— and known by me. They can be supported and appreciated.”
When recruitment is unsuccessful, principals in areas with shortages may turn to retired teachers, who are only allowed to work half a school year, or find long-term subs. Sometimes class sizes are kept larger.
In other cases, Teach for America, a national organization that trains mostly recent college graduates to teach in low-income schools, is called upon to temporarily fill positions. This fall, the organization has 145 new teachers working in Mississippi schools, not enough to handle district requests.
Yazoo City Principal Michael Johnson said the partnership can bring much-needed relief, but prefers to find teachers more invested in Mississippi communities for the long-run.
TFA says it has tried to recruit more Mississippi natives to its program, and this year at least 12 of its recruits are lifelong Mississippians. Still, most of the organization’s teachers are from outside the state and tend to leave when their two-year teaching commitment is over.
In Meridian, where Rhone’s children attend school, 11 percent of teachers were not properly licensed in at least one of the subjects they taught last school year. About 38 percent of the district’s teachers were rookie teachers with less than three years of experience, the report found. The district is 98 percent black.
Rhone said her second-grader once went without homework for several weeks, while her high-school son coasted after a sub took over his social studies class. One reason for the disruption is the hard time Mississippi has historically had attracting strong teachers to poor and minority districts.
Some districts allow educators to work as teachers even before they complete their required teacher credential courses. In other cases, teachers are teaching out of their area of expertise. For example, someone credentialed to teach science might be teaching math.
Consistently, the districts that struggle most are the state’s poorest, and in most cases have the highest percentages of black students.
“You have to work your tail off when you come to teach here,” said Terry Moore, Human Resources director for the Meridian Public School District. “You deal with more than just a classroom. You deal with home lives. You have to get into the home life a bit –— see where they come from, what kind of supports they have. You have to know all that.”
Mississippi students in low-income and high minority schools have more rookie teachers than their peers in other parts of the state, the state’s report found. Principals in areas with teacher shortages said they often turn to retired teachers, who are only allowed to work half a school year, or to long-term subs. Sometimes class sizes are kept larger.
Jacolby Moore, 21, of Jackson, who attended Jackson’s Wingfield High from 2010 through 2013, had several long-term subs and a string of teachers who left mid-year. He was eventually behind in his credits and decided to drop out and pursue his GED instead.
“I think it did mess me up,” said Moore, an aspiring graphic designer who works at Taco Bell. “There were teachers who would be here, and then they’d just be gone. There was a high percentage of subs and the subs a lot of times wouldn’t teach you the way a teacher would. They could be good people but they might not be real teachers. It affects kids. People need to know that.”
Education experts have long worried about the effects of weak teaching on all children, particularly low-income ones.
Former University of Tennessee researcher William Sanders found students who scored at about the same level on state math tests in third grade had score differences of as much as 50 percentage points on sixth grade tests after having less qualified teachers.
The difference in teachers was enough to land some students in remedial classes and others in advanced ones.
That doesn’t surprise Beth Thrasher, a freshman math teacher at Wingfield High in Jackson, where in early September there were three math positions open, one of which remained open as of September 23.
“You have kids not receiving content,” said Thrasher, whose school is 90 percent low-income and about 97 percent black, according to data from The Children First, information compiled by the Mississippi Department of Education.
“They aren’t learning what they need because they don’t have a teacher there consistently teaching them. I have kids in ninth grade every year who have had inconsistent math instruction,” added Thrasher, who has been teaching since 2008. “They’ve had a lot of long-term subs, or a new teacher or a teacher teaching out of their field. They don’t learn what they need. And when they come to ninth grade, it’s very hard to make up for that.”
Turnover hurts kids
Moore, the former student from Jackson, said teacher departures took an emotional toll on him and other kids.
“Some students have a better bond with teachers than with their own families,” Moore said. “When teachers leave out of here, there is greater dysfunction in life than there already was. The teachers are like close relations. When they leave in the middle of the year, they leave so much disruption. You need someone to talk to and you look around and they aren’t there.”
Teacher turnover can also take a toll on school culture and stability, education leaders say.
In Meridian, Susan Hester, instructional specialist for secondary English language arts, recalls years in which about half of all secondary teachers were new. Such turnover — along with the high number of new teachers — creates additional work for teacher coaches, who work to guide new or struggling teachers.
“A lot of my time has to go to the new teachers,” said Hester, whose job it is to work with teachers on instruction and curriculum.
Temptation of higher-income communities
Teachers with strong resumes often choose to live and work in upper income areas instead of low-income ones, in part so they can enjoy certain amenities, said Billy Joe Ferguson, superintendent in remote Carroll County.
“They want to live near certain things — restaurants, family neighborhoods, shopping,” Ferguson said. “If they have to choose between driving or not driving, a lot of them are going to choose not to drive. That’s reasonable.”
Some high-poverty districts across Mississippi offer better salaries — but the pay difference is only about $1,200 to $3,000 at most. The extra money comes in the form of a local salary supplement. The average teacher salary state-wide is about $41,000.
Wingfield High math teacher Alice Lott said there’s a perception teachers must start out in a low-income school, but then good ones leave.
“My dad tries to get me to apply in Madison,” said Lott, who has been at Wingfield for several years. “He tells me he wants me to get out — that I’ve done my time here and it’s time to move on. But I like the kids and the challenge.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t disheartened by student performance.
“Sometimes I get my tests back, and I just cry,” Lott said. “You work so hard, and you try to teach different ways, but then you don’t see results. It’s discouraging, but you keep trying.”
Thrasher, the Wingfield math teacher and department chair, loves her job but finds it takes its toll.
“You think about the girl who gathers up her siblings while her mom goes on the stoop to smoke crack, the senior living in an abandoned house with siblings and a baby of her own. The last couple of years, it’s been the gang activity that’s gotten me.”
In Meridian, Janice Turnage, a veteran third grade teacher, said she’ll often spend her own money on students. She has taken children out to lunch to reward them or offer encouragement.
“If you care, it is probably going to cost you,” Turnage said.*
Who Teaches Best?
Some school leaders balk at the idea that novice teachers are bad for schools.
Last spring, Michael Johnson, principal at Woolfolk Middle School in Yazoo City, had about 15 vacancies on his 30-person staff. In early September, he still had two vacancies in science, one in language arts and one in technology.
He interviewed credentialed teachers, but isn’t hiring for his rural school, which is 98 percent minority and where almost all students qualify for a free lunch. He said he didn’t find a credentialed teacher who met his expectations.
“Just because you have a credential doesn’t mean you’re a good fit,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to hire someone who doesn’t want to be here working with our kids. Hiring someone who is a bad fit creates more problems.”
Instead, he’s making do with retirees and larger class sizes.
Closer to home
Neal, of the state Department of Education hopes districts will do more to help low-income districts “grow their own,” teachers, by encouraging teacher aides, bus drivers, substitutes and others to teach.
“One of the most significant things we can do is work with people who are already in high-need communities,” said Neal. “They are where they want to be.”
Neal said her agency is partnering with universities to develop more online credential classes so paraprofessionals don’t have to leave home for college. The agency is also planning a campaign to promote the teaching profession.
Encouraging experienced teachers to mentor rookies also helps give teachers the confidence they need to succeed, and to stay. Middle school English teacher Kristin Warren from Meridian said she wouldn’t have survived her first year without mentoring.
“I was lucky,” Warren said. “I was lost in the beginning. But I had (a mentor) who gave me support and encouragement. She made me feel like I could do this.”
The legislature has provided funding for new rookie mentoring programs in the past, but funds aren’t available from the state now, Neal said.
Helping new teachers excel
Making sure teachers feel comfortable with low-income students also could be helpful in both recruiting and retaining teachers, said Ethel Warren, a teacher in Yazoo.
“There are people who think the children in the classrooms are going to act like children in a textbook or in a movie or something — perfect,” she said. “Those people don’t last long in a real classroom. … Teachers need to feel confident working with kids. Letting them have that fear of some schools and some children isn’t good for anyone.”
Thea Williams-Black, chair of elementary and early childhood education at Jackson State University, said the school is pushing students to get experiences in both high-poverty and low-poverty districts.
“We have to expose our students,” she said. “Teachers need to have experiences with people who don’t look like them. They need to be able to adapt — to what it’s like to be in an affluent area, and what it’s like to be surrounded by poverty. They have to be able to relate to people — to students and parents and communities. You get rid of that fear and discomfort through exposure.”
Williams-Black and state officials have said solving the problem of attracting teachers to low-income, high-minority schools is going to take time. She’s working on a grant to address equity needs through mentoring and teacher recruitment programs.
“It’s a big problem — and not an easy one to solve,” she said.
Meanwhile, Meridian mom Rhone said she hopes more certified teachers are drawn to Mississippi’s high-poverty schools sooner rather than later.
“This matters — and it matters now,” she said. “You have children in kindergarten and first and second grade who need to learn to read now. You have high school students who need to pick up more math skills so they can graduate and go to college. … Kids can’t wait. Tomorrow might be too late.”
*Correction: This story has been updated with the correct attribution of a quote by Beth Thrasher.