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Some smaller Missouri schools struggle to recruit, retain teachers
EDITOR'S NOTE: The name a school has been corrected in this story from Scott City to Scott County Central.
Rebecca Cook's work day often begins early and ends late.
The Delta School District teacher is in by 7:30 a.m., and spends her mornings teaching seventh- and eighth-grade science. In the afternoons, Cook leads physical education and health classes. After school, in the early fall, she's on the field coaching the Delta High School softball team. Late fall into early winter, Cook helps coach girls basketball. Depending on the sport, she's home by 7, 8, 9 p.m., sometimes later, but her work day isn't done. The young teacher often spends her late evenings grading homework and tests.
"Then I start the day all over again," Cook said.
At 25, Cook is one of Delta's youngest teachers. The 2003 Delta High School graduate said she was fortunate to land a job at her alma mater. Despite the long days and hard work, after a few years in front of the classroom, Cook said she wouldn't change her life for the world.
"I love teaching, I love coaching, and I really love teaching at Delta," she said.
That kind of commitment can be hard to find in rural school districts, where lower salaries, limited teaching resources and geographical isolation have made recruiting and retaining talented teachers no easy feat. Attracting and keeping quality educators is all the more challenging in the current sluggish economy.
Many Southeast Missouri rural school districts, however, say they've fared better than others, and new incentives in other parts of the state could provide the kinds of enticements long offered in urban schools.
Doing the math
Karla Eslinger, assistant commissioner of education for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's Office of Educator Quality, said it has been especially hard for some rural districts to keep up with recruitment and retention.
"A teacher straight out of college wants to be as successful as possible, and it's hard to attract new graduates, especially when the salary schedules [in rural districts] are not as competitive," Eslinger said.
The average starting teacher salary in Missouri is $29,281, according to teacher resource site Teacherportal.com. The average teacher salary is $40,462. The minimum salary in the state's public schools is $25,000.
Scott County Central High School offers beginning teachers with a bachelor's degree $27,500 a year, more depending on experience, said principal Eileen Owens. With escalating health insurance costs, the Scott City School Board, like many other boards, has had to ask educators to pick up a greater portion of the bill.
Owens said recruitment hasn't been the problem at Scott City High School.
"It's after they get here and are with us a couple years, then they can move on to a bigger district," she said. "Everyone wants people with experience."
Owens said secondary math and science teachers often are the most difficult to retain.
Missouri's educator ranks grew by more than 10,000 teachers between 1997 and 2009, from 60,381 to 70,624, according the education department. Last year, 5,500 teachers, about 7 percent, left the work force. The percentage of Missouri teachers leaving the classroom after one to three years continues to rise, topping 25 percent, increasing another 1.3 percent in 2009.
High teacher turnover can be academically damaging. To keep up, Eslinger said some rural districts have been forced to hire graduates lacking certificates in some of the subject areas they teach, with the condition that new educators get the proper training.
No place like home
The Kelso School District, with about 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, hasn't had many problems attracting quality teachers, said superintendent Bill Rogers. He calls it a "nice little neighborhood" in the middle of Scott County. Beginning teachers earn about $29,000 a year, right around the state average, and their health benefits are completely covered. But Rogers said small class sizes with student-to-teacher ratios as small as 6-to-1 are a powerful recruitment incentive.
"To me, it would be one of the better jobs to have," he said, adding turnover remains low in a district with 10 full-time and seven part-time teachers.
The Delta School District, like many in Southeast Missouri, is staffed by a lot of home-grown talent.
"This is my fifth year, and I've had to replace maybe a teacher a year," said Delta High School principal Jim Gloth. That doesn't mean the task of hiring and keeping teachers is always easy, and Gloth envisions the process getting tougher.
But there are some budding programs that are beginning to assist rural teachers, at least in other parts of the state.
The Ozark Teacher Corps in southwest Missouri offers $4,000 in tuition or scholarship support to students in college education programs at Missouri State University and Drury University in Springfield, Mo., in return for working and staying in a district in the region. And the new Rural Education Center in West Plains, Mo., is providing training for students to be successful in a rural school environment.
For Cook, coming to Delta was an easy choice. That she had a job waiting for her made the choice easy, but really it was about coming back home. And right now, the young teacher is enjoying home.
"I'll just go wherever the Lord wants me to go," Cook said. "As for now, I'm really content being at Delta."
324 N. Liberty St., Delta, MO
3000 Main St., Scott City, MO
1016 Route A, Benton, MO