Head of the class?

Photo IllustrationA teacher at Northeast Elementary Magnet School hands out paper to students (from left) Shean LeSure, Hannah Schroeder and Rodrigo Ortiz-Pinacho.

With two weeks left before schools across Vermilion County open for the new school year, officials in many area school districts continue to scramble ... and hope ... to fill key teaching positions in their classrooms before students return.

Some superintendents say the local shortage of teachers is part of a larger problem — a national teacher shortage that started a few years ago and finally has reached this area.

The consensus among local school officials is that young people are no longer pursuing careers in education, compounded with new licensure and certification requirements in Illinois that makes hiring a certified teacher from another state — such as Indiana — difficult and time consuming.

Dianna Kirk, Danville District 118’s human resources director, said she started noticing a drop-off in the number of college students interested in the teaching profession several years ago.

Kirk, who represents the district at several job fairs on college campuses around the state each year, said she remembers a time when dozens of soon-to-be college graduates who were interested in the teaching profession would be lined up at the door, waiting to get into a job fair. Now, she said, she’s lucky to see 10 or 12 students stroll through a job fair in the first couple hours.

“I attend job fairs, and I go on campuses and work with the student teachers,” she said. “I can tell you there’s been a decrease in the number of people going into education.”

At first, the teacher shortage was isolated to highly populated states, such as California and Florida, and remote areas like Alaska, Kirk said, but now the teacher shortage has spread nationwide.

“Some states are in worse shape than Illinois,” Kirk said. “I’ve seen recruiters from Alaska, California and Florida on Illinois college campuses, trying to recruit young people.”

Kurt Thornsbrough, principal of Armstrong-Ellis Grade School, blames Illinois officials for souring its residents on the teaching profession.

“They make it way too hard. They make it difficult to get certified in Illinois,” he said. “They decreased the benefits a couple of years ago, which prevented younger teachers from wanting to sign on.

“It’s not a friendly deal in Illinois,” he said.

Bismarck-Henning Superintendent Scott Watson echoed Thornsbrough. “Illinois makes it difficult to be a teacher with their requirements. It’s ridiculous.”

Georgetown-Ridge Farm Superintendent Jean Neal agreed. “A couple years ago the requirements were increased, and I think there are fewer college students going into the profession.

“The standards are high in Illinois, but they (state officials) don’t realize the unintended consequences they have created,” Neal said. “Being in a rural area, we’re already challenged in finding candidates, and now there’s a series of tests they have to take (to be certified to teach in Illinois).”

Superintendent Phil Harrison, who heads the rural Salt Fork district, didn’t mince words, either.

“The Illinois licensure process has been a significant hindrance. The licensure requirements are steep, and college students are realizing that teaching isn’t going to pay what other industries pay,” he said. “Besides, no one wants to go into a profession where you’re wrong all the time.

It’s no secret that even without a nationwide teacher shortage, rural school districts usually struggle to fill teaching positions because young people don’t find living in rural areas appealing, Harrison said.

“We aren’t in an attractive area for them, and finding someone with the licensure requirements has been difficult,” he said.

What’s Next

Danville District 118’s students will return to school in two weeks, but as of Friday, 29 positions remained vacant, 15 of which are full-time teaching positions.

“Spanish, math and special education have always been hard to fill,” Kirk said.

Another problem Kirk faced this summer was dealing with about a half-dozen resignations from positions she thought she had filled.

“We’ve had at least five people who we hired or who were offered a job and they accepted, but then they resigned,” she said.

Some of the teaching positions still open in the Danville district include middle school English Language Arts/science, middle school math, middle school PE/health, high school PE, high school Spanish, eight special education positions, and a high school computer-aided drafting position, for which Kirk received only one application.

“We’ve received only 52 applications since April,” she said. “For some positions we only received two applications.”

Kirk, who has been the district’s human resources director for years, knows what she has to do.

“We are on the phone with our retirees, asking them if they can give us 100 days to get us through the first semester,” she said. “We also have good substitutes.”

Sometimes retired teachers, however, have allowed their teaching license to lapse and must be recertified, even though they had taught for decades in Illinois. They must go through the same licensure process as a certified teacher from out-of-state.

With both scenarios, Kirk said, “I send a ‘rush letter’ to (Regional Superintendent) Cheryl Reifsteck to let the state know we’ve hired someone, pending their Illinois certification.”

Kirk and Westville Superintendent Seth Miller said local school districts need to do a better job recruiting and retaining teachers.

“It’s a nationwide issue,” Miller said of the teacher shortage. “I think the profession, in general, is at a time when we need to be able to adapt to make it attractive and make people excited about the profession.”

Kirk agreed. “We’ve got to get people interested in teaching, and people who are in education need to stay in education.”

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