With about 25 vacancies to fill next school year, Lexington 2 School District recruiters flew to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this spring to get in front of hundreds of teachers looking for work.
It was a success. The district, which covers West Columbia and Cayce, made three job offers at the job fair.
Next up: fairs in Ohio and Michigan to find more teachers.
Welcome to South Carolina's new way of filling classrooms.
Faced with an alarming shortage of teachers, S.C. districts are taking unusual steps to fill vacancies — recruiting in other parts of the country (14 S.C. districts attended the Pittsburgh job fair), buying homes for teachers and funneling noneducation professionals into the classroom in a matter of weeks.
"We're all trying to figure out creative ways to recruit given this changing environment," said Dawn Kujawa, Lexington 2's spokeswoman.
Underpaid and overworked, the state's teachers are leaving the classroom in record numbers. Last school year, nearly 1 in 10 teachers quit their S.C. public school jobs.
S.C. colleges can't fill the void as they produce fewer teachers. Adding to the crisis, the state's Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive program, which kept many retirement-age teachers working, ends this summer.
Recruiting around the country
While S.C. school districts search beyond the Southeast for teachers, experts say it can lead to a dangerous cycle.
“It’s hard to recruit folks and ask them to stay in a community,” said Ann Nutter Coffman, manager of the teacher quality department with the National Education Association (NEA). “You end up in this churn cycle where you have a high number of educators who are not necessarily invested in their communities because they’re not from there and they’re less likely to stay.”
It creates an endless feedback loop of school districts working to fill vacancies, she said.
Nevertheless, it has become an increasingly popular trend with many districts, such as Lexington 2, which expanded its recruitment efforts for the first time this year. One of the state's biggest and wealthiest districts, Columbia's Richland 1, has been recruiting in the Northeast and Midwest for years.
States like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan are ripe for recruiting. Each has a number of colleges and universities churning out more teachers than the state can hire, Nutter Coffman said. Strong teacher unions help keep pay competitive — and teachers in the classroom.
Lexington 2 typically starts off the school year with eight teacher vacancies and uses long-term substitutes until those positions are filled, said Angela Cooper, the district's chief human resources officer. The district plans to spend about $6,700 more to attend out-of-state recruiting events, and officials are confident that will make the difference.
“At this point in the year,” Cooper said, “we are ahead of the game when it comes to filling our vacancies.”
Richland 1 also attended the job fair in Pennsylvania. The district met with about 25 to 30 candidates and interviewed about a dozen of them, said Joya Gregg, coordinator of certified employment services. No jobs were offered on the spot, but the district is in communication with several of them.
There's a real sense of urgency, Gregg said. Richland 1 started last year with 40 teaching vacancies, and next year, the district anticipates 140.
“At this stage in the game, if you are not talking to people and putting a contract in their hand, you are already behind the eight ball,” she said.
Buying houses for teachers
Some small, rural districts are taking a different approach to attracting teachers. They're buying real estate.
Teachers in Dillon 4, a small rural district near the N.C. border, must drive a roughly 45-minute commute to work because of a lack of housing options near the schools, said the district's Assistant Superintendent Polly Elkins.
When a duplex with two 930-square-foot units opened up near the heart of downtown, Dillon 4 jumped at the chance to buy it. The district hopes it will become a tool to recruit teachers for years to come.
"It's quite an incentive (for teachers)," Elkins said.
Dillon 4 bought the duplex in October with help from an $80,000 grant from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. Both units have two bedrooms and one-and-a-half bathrooms, and teachers pay $500 in monthly rent to the district. One teacher has moved in and another is on the way, Elkins said.
The district already has its eye on a second property to buy and renovate for teacher housing, said Elkins, who plans to apply for the same grant to pay for it.
“As long as the money is there, I want to make sure it’s going toward something that benefits the teachers from the ground up,” she said.
Across the state, the McCormick School District is in the midst of renovating a house it purchased for $45,000, and officials also are considering buying a $140,000 apartment building, district Superintendent Don Doggett said.
In this case, McCormick is taking a two-pronged approach.
Not only will the housing serve as a recruiting and retention tool, but it also will support a new residency program the district is trying to build, Doggett said.
"The residency model is like a medical residency. You spend more time learning a craft with a teacher, with mentors and being a part of the community, with the hope that you’ll stay,” Doggett said. “If we have something to help people get used to the natural pace of life (as a teacher) in rural areas, then they may make a long-term commitment both to the profession and to the community."
Give us a month, we'll make you a teacher
Two of the state's largest school districts are taking another route to fill teacher vacancies.
Both the Charleston County and Greenville County school districts have created their own certification programs, taking professionals from other careers and turning them into educators in a matter of weeks.
The programs, modeled after PACE, the state-run alternative certification program, are anticipated to produce about 15 to 20 teachers for each district annually. Unlike the state program, the districts have control over their local programs, including the type of teachers they accept and the monitoring of their progress.
This strategy also helps prepare teachers for what it's like to work within their district. And it takes only about a month.
“When that individual gets hired in the spring and they go through that small training in the summer, they find themselves in front of a classroom of students by August,” said William Briggman, chief human resources officer with the Charleston County School District.
Participants in the Greenville Alternative Teacher Education Program (GATE) and Charleston's TeachCharleston spend three to four weeks earning a certification to teach math, science and foreign languages, and then are placed in a classroom within those districts. They must have a four-year college degree with a 2.75 GPA and a major in related coursework.
"It’s a fast track,” GATE director Debra Lee said of the training. But “when we do this, we have local control over what they’re learning and how they’re learning it.”
But national experts say these programs only serve as a finger in the dike and question the quality of the teachers they produce.
These new teachers are learning how to teach while leading a classroom of 25 to 30 students, said Nutter Coffman with the NEA.
And in districts that already have trouble retaining teachers, it often means there's an issue with the working environment — a lack of support as an educator, quality administration and access to professional opportunities. All of that matters so much more with noneducation professionals, Nutter Coffman said.
"If you're not able to provide quality professional learning opportunities to your traditionally certified teaching population, it's often hard to do that with alternative certification programs," she added.
But program officials say the goal is to provide more support than what is offered through the state. On top of that, it's filling an urgent need.
“I don’t think people realize the magnitude of the numbers," Lee said of the vacancies. "And if it weren’t for programs like GATE, there would be long-term subs in those classrooms."
South Carolina's teacher crisis, by the numbers
22 — Percentage of first-year teachers hired in 2016-17 who left teaching in S.C. schools altogether during or after the school year
6,705 — or 13 percent of 2016-17 teachers — left their teaching positions, up from 9 percent who left after the 2010-11 school year
4,914 — or 1 in 10 of 2016-17 teachers — left and did not return to any S.C. teaching position
38 — Percentage of teachers who left their jobs in their first five years of teaching
1,685 — Graduates from S.C. teacher colleges in 2016-17, a 30 percent drop from a high of 2,415 four years earlier in 2012-13
Source: The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement and the S.C. Commission on Higher Education