South Carolina already has some good tools for fixing its teacher shortage, according to State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman — it just isn’t providing enough funding for them.
Speaking in Charleston on Thursday, Spearman lauded the state’s Teaching Fellows program and Call Me MISTER for recruiting and retaining new teachers, and she called on state legislators to provide more money next year.
“We know it works. The retention level is above the state average,” Spearman said. “Those are the kinds of programs we really need to invest in.”
Spearman was one of the speakers at the inaugural Zucker Family Educational Leadership and Innovation Forum, hosted by The Citadel’s school of education at the Francis Marion Hotel. The day focused on addressing the Palmetto State’s teacher shortage, which has worsened in recent years.
A new report by the state-funded Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement found 481 teaching vacancies across the state. Also, teachers are quitting in droves or leaving to teach elsewhere. About 6,500 teachers did not return to their positions for the 2016-17 school year.
State lawmakers created the Teaching Fellows program in 1999 to recruit up to 200 high-achieving high school seniors per year into colleges of education. Qualifying students can receive up to $24,000 in scholarship money to attend a college of education, committing to teach in a South Carolina school one year for each year of the fellowship. The program spent about $4.9 million on scholarships in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
An analysis of the Teaching Fellows program’s first 13 years showed signs of hope. Out of the 1,651 graduates of the program, 71 percent were still employed in South Carolina public school districts as of March 2017.
Spearman also sang the praises of Call Me MISTER, which recruits black males to become teachers. The program started at Clemson University, then expanded to other colleges, offering financial assistance, academic support and job placement help.
Its retention rate is unheard of in the education world: Of the 221 graduates of the program since 2004, 100 percent are still working in South Carolina public schools — mostly as teachers, although Executive Director Roy Jones said about 5 percent are administrators now.
Despite its success, Call Me MISTER’s annual state funding level has been stagnant at $1.2 million for years. Because of the rising cost of education, the number of recruits admitted at each member school has shrunk from five per year to three.
“We’ve never had trouble with recruitment,” Jones said. “The majority of our students come from South Carolina, and they’ve stuck in state.”
South Carolina as a whole ranks 38th in average teacher salary, but some school districts have ratcheted up their recruitment. In one aggressive example, the Cherokee County School District announced last year it would pay up to a $10,000 signing bonus for teachers working in high-demand subject areas like foreign languages and secondary math. The bonus required a two-year commitment to teach there.
Dorchester School District 2 Superintendent Joe Pye said that trend could present a problem for districts like his, which attracts teachers with its strong academic reputation but does not have money for bonuses. He favors statewide raises for teachers, and he worries about the message that signing bonuses can send to teachers who already work in a district.
Ultimately, he said, school districts need to find a way to recruit more locals, who tend to stick around longer.
“We travel all over the North and we haul them in by busloads because they can’t find jobs,” Pye said, “but the beach only attracts them for a year.”
Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.