Back to school

Carol Roehm|Commercial-NewsKenneth D. Bailey Academy secretary Janelle Biggs, left, reviews the school's schedule with new Principal Mitzi Campbell. Local schools prepare for the return of students soon, but several districts continue to look for teachers to fill open positions.

DANVILLE – Students will return to school across Vermilion County in the next week or two, but some local districts still seek certified teachers to lead their classrooms.

Danville District 118’s traditional calendar schools will welcome students with an abbreviated day on Tuesday, Aug. 13, while the first full day of school will be Wednesday, Aug. 14 for Georgetown-Ridge Farm students and Monday, Aug. 19 at the remaining county school districts.

A sweeping nationwide teacher shortage surfaced several years ago as veteran teachers began to retire en masse and college students have chosen not to go into the teaching profession or have elected to leave the classroom after five years of service or less.

“It’s not just a local issue, it’s prevalent statewide and nationwide,” Vermilion County Regional Superintendent Cheryl Reifsteck said.

“It’s even a greater issue this year,” she added.

Westville Superintendent Seth Miller agreed with Reifsteck.

“The teacher shortage is a national phenomenon; it’s not exclusive to Illinois or Vermilion County,” he said.

Miller said he believes the nation’s historically low unemployment rate right now and competition for certified teachers among local school districts is contributing to the problem.

“Most people who want to work in the U.S. have a job right now,” he said. “Certain job sectors, like nursing, education and manufacturing, all are hungry for employees. There’s a lot of competition right now for employees.

“Champaign County pays (teachers) more than Vermilion County, and Danville pays more than the collar schools in the county,” he said.

At the same time, teaching has become a more difficult profession because of the demands society places on today’s teachers, Miller said.

“We are the transporters, the feeders, the mental health counselors and the educators,” he said. “The demands on educators have increased more and more over time, and it’s hard to meet the demands of people.

“Young kids (in college) are thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can handle all that pressure,’” Miller said. “Being an educator is still a respectable job and an honorable profession, but it’s a hard job and it’s supposed to be.”

Reifsteck said area school districts have gone to extreme lengths to ensure their classrooms are being staffed by qualified teachers.

“There’s such a great shortage, districts are looking at every option legally to have someone teaching in every one of their classrooms while continually looking for fully certified teachers,” Reifsteck said.

Last year, the state legislature — recognizing the burden the teacher shortage was placing on Illinois school districts — passed a law allowing retired certified staff to teach in the classroom for an entire school year rather than 120 days, which had been the prior limit.

Reifsteck said that law now has been extended to 2021.

Kimberly Pabst, District 118 human resources director, said that although the Danville district relies on a cadre of retirees to fill classroom vacancies, she said the district also is “very careful” not to interfere with retirees’ pension benefits.

“There are a lot of stipulations,” she said of asking retired staff to work beyond 120 days.

Both Pabst and Miller said they are optimistic that all of their district’s vacancies would be filled by the time school starts.

“We have a couple positions we’re still working on, but I’m hopeful to have them all filled by Wednesday’s board meeting,” Miller said.

“I’m excited for this year. Every classroom is filled,” Pabst said. “If there’s a vacancy, we look at filling it with a retiree first, but our priority first and foremost is to have a certified teacher in there.

“We’ve had a lot of good applicants, and we have substitutes who did a good job in their position last year that are coming back,” Pabst said, adding that the district would like to add more substitutes – not just general education teachers but teaching assistants, secretaries, nurses and hall monitors -- to its list.

Pabst said 110 substitutes showed up for the district’s first orientation session recently, but that number was lower than in past years.

“The commitment is different than it used to be,” she said. “The majority that showed up to the orientation has been veteran teachers.”

As of mid-week, school districts across the county were vying for the same three types of teachers: physical education, Spanish and special education. The vacancies include:

Danville School District: Fifteen positions, including a teacher at Edison Elementary School; a teacher at Garfield Elementary School; a teacher and three physical education teachers at South View Upper Elementary School; an English Language Arts teacher, a physical education teacher and a science teacher at North Ridge Middle School; and two English Language Arts teachers, a science teacher, a social studies teacher, a physical education teacher and a school counselor at the high school.

Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin School District: Fourteen positions, a classroom aide, a special education teacher, a music teacher, a K-4 teacher, a Title I reading teacher and a lunchroom monitor at the elementary school; a girls’ PE teacher, a speech team coach, a special education teacher, a seventh- and eighth-grade Scholastic Bowl coach and a study hall/lunch monitor at the junior high; and a physical education and health teacher/head softball coach, a special education teacher and a Spanish teacher at the high school.

Georgetown-Ridge Farm School District: One position, an elementary school teacher.

Hoopeston Area School District: Twenty positions, including a second grade teacher, a pre-kindergarten to second grade school counselor and a pre-kindergarten to second grade social worker; two English Language Arts teachers, sixth-grade science teacher, science teacher, seventh-grade boys basketball coach, seventh-grade volleyball coach, eighth-grade girls basketball coach and eighth-grade boys basketball coach at the middle school; science/chemistry teacher, part-time social studies/geography teacher, assistant volleyball coach, assistant track coach and three personal aides at the high school; and a custodian and a bus driver.

Oakwood School District: Three positions, including a baseball coach at the junior high; and a business education teacher and a special education teacher, both at the high school.

Salt Fork School District: Four positions, including a physical education teacher and a music teacher at South Elementary/Junior High; a junior high baseball coach; and a full-time or part-time special education teacher at the high school.

Westville School District: Nine positions, including a first through third grade teacher, a fourth/fifth grade teacher, a full-time classroom aide, a social worker and a guidance counselor at the elementary school; a part-time classroom aide at the junior high; a Spanish teacher and an assistant volleyball coach at the high school; and a special education teacher in the central office.

The solution to ending the teacher shortage, according to Reifsteck, is to make the teaching profession an attractive option for young adults.

“There are fewer and fewer college students entering our education programs,” she lamented. “We need to make college students aware of the opportunities, but getting them interested is definitely a challenge.”

To encourage local young adults to consider the teaching profession, Reifsteck’s office sponsors a cohort program with Eastern Illinois University at Danville Area Community College in which students can earn a bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern by taking additional coursework on DACC’s campus.

“The college has been working hard on this because we’ve known about the teacher shortage for quite some time,” Dave Kietzmann, DACC executive vice president of instruction and student services, said. “Even at our level, we don’t have the pool of candidates that we once had 10 years ago.”

Pabst said District 118 has beefed up its incentives to encourage the recruitment and retention of teachers, especially after losing some teachers and administrators to the Urbana School District this summer.

“We have a lot of incentives,” she said. “The staff has cash incentives to recruit teachers. I’ll sit at a ballgame and recruit.”

In fact, Pabst recruits college students to come to District 118 before they have finished student teaching and graduated.

“I have two right now who are student teaching in the fall and will start teaching in the district in January,” she said.

Pabst, however, also echoed Miller’s sentiments about the expectations placed on today’s teachers that may make some young adults shy away from pursuing a career in teaching.

“You have to have the heart to come here,” she said. “We’re here for the whole child.”

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