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After accepting a job to teach science at Potts Camp School in rural Marshall County, Charlie Sisk began looking for housing.
A science graduate of the University of Colorado, the first-year teacher was eager to begin working in the county, one the state had identified as a critical needs area lacking teachers. Joining with other new teachers, he expected to have an easy time securing living arrangements in neighboring Holly Springs.
“It was frustrating,” Sisk said, adding that several homes he looked at had mold infestation and major structural issues.
One residence had a foundation that was slowly sinking into the ground and needed repairs after a tree had fallen through the living room. It wasn’t until two weeks before the school year started that Sisk and his friends finally found a three-bedroom home in good condition that they could rent.
“We got really lucky,” he said. “It was hard breaking into a market where there weren’t a lot of open doors.”
In Mississippi, attracting top-performing teachers to the neediest schools is an ongoing challenge. Nearly one-third of all districts in the state have been identified as critical needs districts, meaning they have extensive teacher shortages. Those shortages are often exacerbated in rural settings that lack housing, restaurants and other amenities that would make them attractive places for individuals without family connections.
Critical needs districts in the state are defined as those with 60 or more teaching positions that have 10 percent of their teaching staff not properly licensed for the subject they are teaching. For districts with fewer than 60 teachers, that percentage is 15. Also included are districts where at least 30 percent of the teaching staff has enough experience to retire.
Many of the state’s 48 critical needs districts also are among the lowest performing. Only one, South Delta in Rolling Fork, received a B grade from the state for its student performance last school year, while 32 were rated D or F.
It is an issue that plagues schools nationwide. As of last April, every state had reported a teacher shortage in at least one content or geographic area for the 2012-13 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Many of these vacancies are in math, science or special education and in the most underperforming school districts.
While the federal government has offered student loan forgiveness and stipends to incentivize teachers to teach in these areas, researchers have found that nationwide, inexperienced teachers are still more common in rural, high-poverty schools.
Yet these are often the schools most in need of great, veteran teachers.
A growing body of research has found that teachers are the largest in-school factor affecting student achievement. Less-experienced teachers, those who commonly end up in high-needs schools, are more likely to leave the profession quickly and may be less effective than their experienced colleagues at raising student achievement.
And experts say good teachers could help mitigate the effects of other issues that are often widespread in these communities, like family instability.
“Research shows the best thing you can do to overcome bad parents or no parents or stressed out overworked parents who often come in these generational poverty school districts is four years in a row of an empathetic, well-trained, dedicated teacher,” said longtime education advocate Andy Mullins, who now works as chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Mississippi. “It doesn’t overcome not having good parents or it doesn’t measure up to having good parents, but it is the closest thing to it.”
Difficult to recruit
The state has attempted to lure good teachers into the most needy districts for years, offering incentives like college scholarships that cover tuition, fees, books and the average cost of room and meals, as well as moving incentives and housing assistance for those who relocate to such places.
Daphne Buckley, deputy superintendent for the Mississippi Department of Education’s office of quality professionals and special schools, said the perks have made a difference.
“Over the years since the Critical Shortage Act of 1998 was implemented, we believe that without it, we would have a smaller number of teachers willing to go to work in critical geographic regions of the state where they’re needed,” she said.
But in districts where it can be difficult to attract any teachers, recruiting the best educators can be frustratingly futile.
“Some of the low performing schools are in places that are very rural,” said Hank Bounds, who heads Mississippi’s university system and formerly served as state superintendent. “If you get a 22-year-old teacher and you are asking them to move to a place where it is a 30- or 40-mile drive to the nearest movie theater, it is difficult.
“Typically what we see happening is many of those teachers, unless they have connections to some rural area or some poor-performing school district, they typically choose to go to some of the districts with more resources, with lower student-teacher ratios, with leadership that understands and recognizes the value and importance of supporting teachers.”
Hazlehurst Middle School principal Nyisha Wells said it has been hard to keep teachers in the area, located an hour south of Jackson. The school has struggled academically for years and relies heavily on first-year teachers to fill vacancies.
“Our teachers don’t have much to do here,” Wells said. “They’re young. They want something to do, but there’s not even a coffee shop to go to.”
While that makes it hard to keep teachers, Wells said it also contributes to a strong school culture, with many teachers devoting their evenings and weekends to tutoring and taking students on field trips.
Michael Cormack, the principal of Quitman County Elementary in the Mississippi Delta, said attracting and retaining teachers can be difficult because of pay, location and the challenges of the work. Districts with smaller tax bases have a harder time matching the local pay supplement wealthier districts can provide to teachers.
For Cormack, working at the school is a mission.
“My passion is to prove what is possible for kids of color and low income,” he said.
Dante Thornton is an assistant principal at Byhalia Middle School in Marshall County. He said the school tries to sell teachers on the school’s family atmosphere and on the close-knit bonds of a rural community.
“A city has more attractions to it, but the thing about it is you have great kids in a rural area and great kids who have a right to have great teachers,” he said.
One of the ways you attract great teachers, he said, is with incentives.
Programs trying to meet need
Two organizations trying to fill the need are Teach For America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps, which focus on placing top-caliber college graduates into low-performing and rural Mississippi schools.
For Ron Nurnberg, executive director of Teach For America in the Mississippi Delta, the answer is to turn the question on its head.
“We are attracting people who take what might normally be seen as a deficit and see it as a positive challenge,” Nurnberg said. “They see it as something that can be solved but with hard work and their acumen and know how.”
TFA has more than 300 teachers working in schools across Mississippi, while MTC has 65 first- and second-year educators in the state. Some state and school leaders say these educators have been particularly effective in their classrooms.
Other experts, however, argue that teachers from alternative programs may not be the most effective, especially if they enter the classroom with little experience in education and no background in teaching. Teach For America has been criticized for only requiring a two-year commitment from its teachers.
Some teacher preparation programs in Mississippi are also trying to attract top students to needy districts. The newly announced Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, a collaboration between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, will provide full scholarships to honors-college caliber students who major in education and teach in Mississippi for five years. It operates under the assumption, based on research, that students who are more successful in school tend to be more effective teachers.
Program leaders are seeking additional funding that would allow them to provide bonuses to those who take jobs in critical needs districts.
“I feel anywhere they go will be an impact, but if you put them in high-needs districts, there will be more bang for your buck,” said Ryan Niemeyer, who will direct the program for Ole Miss. He and Mullins also co-direct MTC.
The issue is so important, Mullins said, that perhaps teacher preparation programs need to be structured in a way to address it.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d create a separate wing of a school of education where if you entered that wing, you’d teach children from generational poverty,” he said. “If you were in that wing, you’d get everything paid for and when you taught kids from undisciplined environments, you would make double what teachers make when they teach kids who are upper- to middle class.”
Bounds and Dick Boyd, who served as Mississippi’s state superintendent during the mid-1980s, both suggested the state offer salary supplements to high-quality teachers in the neediest areas. Perhaps, Bounds said, they could even enter the salary scale at a higher level.
For schools that are struggling to keep teachers, other experts point to research that shows money may not solve the problem. While some districts across the nation have found initial success in offering bonuses and higher salaries to those who teach in high-needs schools, studies have found that in these schools, supportive school leaders and positive working conditions were more important to teachers when deciding whether to stay in their schools.
Sisk, from Potts Camp, said a combination of incentives and support may be the best way to retain teachers in high-needs schools, where he and his colleagues often work 15-hour days and have limited resources to help their students.
After filing his taxes this year, Sisk realized he made more money working during his senior year of college than he is making as a teacher. He plans to keep teaching, but admits he will need continued support and encouragement.
“For me, I’d have a lot more fortitude and be willing to put up with a lot more hardship, if I felt like I was being valued and paid what I was worth,” he said.