TERRE HAUTE — Finding new teachers to fill vacant positions has been challenging this year for Parke County school districts.

Describing it as a "daunting task," Southwest Parke Community Schools Superintendent Phil Harrison said the district lost some teachers just before the start of school and had to fill vacant positions using emergency licenses.

"This year was the most difficult of the past few years. There are fewer teaching candidates in the candidate pool, and the competition for licensed individuals is quite fierce," Harrison said. 

Nearby North Central Parke Community School Corp. also reported challenges. "This year, we had the most trouble finding good candidates in elementary education, which is unusual," said Superintendent Tom Rohr. As of the middle of August, the district had one vacancy in special education and it filled three other positions in English, Spanish and special education using emergency licenses.

"I don’t see a great deal of improvement in the number of candidates for any subject area and this is especially true in those hard to fill subjects like special education, science, math and many of the vocational areas. It is now typical to have only one applicant for some positions," Rohr added.

While some preliminary state data suggests possible grounds for optimism in increasing the teacher candidate pipeline, Hoosier school districts still struggle to fill teacher vacancies, especially in urban/rural districts and in such areas as special education, math and science.

Districts in west central Indiana are looking for new ways to recruit teachers, whether attending more teacher recruitment fairs or expanding student teaching agreements to additional colleges/universities.

“The hiring and recruitment of teachers is no longer a seasonal thing," Mick Newport, Vigo County School Corp. director of human resources, stated recently. "It's a year-round process."

The Indiana Department of Education recently provided numbers that suggest possible ground for optimism, yet emphasize it's too early to draw conclusions. The numbers were for internal review and not, at this point, public discussion.

Since January 2017, the state Department of Education has issued about 9,600 new licenses, about a 20 percent increase over the prior 19-month time frame, said Adam Baker, IDOE press secretary.

Overall, the number of active licenses increased by about 2,000, when factoring in those who let their licenses expire.

Baker believes the numbers are "worth watching," but cautioned the state needs more time to see if the increases continue. "We recognize there is still a shortage and there is still work to do," he said. "Until we have two years worth of data, we really won't know if this is an upward trend in licensing, or a one-year hit."

MIXED PROGRESS

State superintendent for public instruction Jennifer McCormick, who was elected in 2016 and took office in 2017, has instituted a number of measures to improve teacher recruitment and retention.

The 9,600 new licenses include 1800 emergency permits, 200 reciprocal permits and 250 transition to teaching permits. It does not include substitute permits. The number of emergency permits is "pretty steady," Baker said.

Indiana State University is seeing progress in some areas, but not others.

Judy Sheese, ISU assistant dean for education in the Bayh College of Education, said that for spring 2019 graduation, the college projects an increases in the number of graduates, especially for elementary and special education.

"That's good news," she said. "We are seeing the highest number of elementary and special education majors we've produced in at least nine years."

But projections indicate numbers of middle and high school education majors aren't coming back as quickly, she said. "We expect a modest increase."

For STEM fields, including math and science, "We're still not seeing an increase, and there is a huge need," Sheese said.

ONGOING ISSUE

Keith Gambill, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said Indiana's teacher shortage has been an ongoing issue for several years now.

"Nationally, more than 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years and this rate of turnover is exacerbated in high-poverty and high-needs schools," he said in an email. "Low teacher salaries make it difficult for schools to attract and retain qualified, committed educators — which all students deserve. We have an opportunity to fix the issue long term and we could start by increasing pay for educators."

In the meantime, west central Indiana districts continue to report shortages and look at new ways to fill vacancies.

Two days before the start of school, the Vigo County School Corp. reported hiring 67 new teachers this year, with about 14 unfilled teaching positions that might require use of substitutes. The district has more than 1,000 teachers.

Fourteen unfilled positions “may sound like a low number, but one unlicensed teacher is one too many,” Newport told the school board in August. 

Vacancies were in such areas as special education, elementary, business and language arts. Because of the state and national teacher shortage, “Licensed teachers today can basically pick their jobs,” Newport said.

Newport believes the pendulum may be swinging the other way and more people may be going into teaching. When the district had its annual screening in June to interview applicants for teaching positions, the number of applicants was much higher than it was three years ago, he said.

At South Vermillion School Corp., Superintendent Dave Chapman said the district struggled through the summer to fill vacancies.

"Luckily, we filled all but one prior to the start of the school year. The one vacancy that remained was in the special education field. Fortunately, we were able to bring in a retired teacher to fill the vacancy," he said.

This past year, South Vermillion officials attended teacher recruitment fairs at Indiana State University, Ball State and the University of Southern Indiana, "which proved to be beneficial as we were fortunate to hire a number of the candidates we talked to at the job fairs," Chapman said. "We will do that again this year and hopefully branch out to even more teacher recruitment fairs."

One of the biggest issues the district faces "is getting candidates to know who and where South Vermillion is. We have to compete with all the other corporations around us that are looking for the same positions. It seems that the pool of candidates may be getting bigger overall, but the issue is the 'high need' areas like special education, Spanish, math and science," Chapman said.

SALARIES A DRIVER

One problem educators point to is that teachers may leave a district because they can receive significant pay upgrades, based on experience, if they move to another district. Changes in state law, and no more step increases, may limit salary growth if they remain in the same district, although they would still benefit from increases negotiated through collective bargaining.

Harrison, the Southwest Parke superintendent, said some teachers who have left the district say that salary conditions were a primary driver.

"Wage growth for Indiana teachers has been stagnant at best, though some recent research shows that wages are actually declining [based on a 10-year study, adjusting for inflation, etc.]. That is a critical matter. Would you want to enter a profession where your starting salary is low and there is no reasonable assurance of salary growth over the course of your working lifetime?"

Shortages are always present in math and sciences, he said. "The math one hit us hard this year. Family and consumer sciences was hard to find. We had difficulty finding social studies, too. That was a real shock, because those folks used to be available in large numbers."

According to Harrison, "The teacher shortage is very real. Salary competition is very real. It's been a tough summer."

Despite the challenges, "I still believe that teaching is a great calling and a great way to live," he said.

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