Teacher Shortage: More Scholarship Money Requested as Lawmakers Start Legislative Session

Haley Sager conducted a summer service project at Westside Elementary School in Demopolis during her internship. She was awarded a scholarship through the University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps, which requires teachers to teach in the Black Belt for three years in return for the aid. She now teaches kindergarten in Demopolis. (Source: Rural Schools Cooperative)

Demopolis City Schools Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff will make a series of recruiting trips to Alabama’s education colleges looking for the best new teachers for his schools.

He’ll try to sell candidates on what his small, rural district can offer them.

There are $4,000 signing bonuses for high school math and science teachers and special education teachers in any grade.

There are attendance bonuses for all employees. Perfect attendance gets $400 at the end of the year.

Kallhoff has even taken steps to help new teachers find homes, putting together a list of area landlords happy to rent to them.

In 2017, he’d recruited a young special education teacher. “She called a month later and said she couldn’t find a place to live,” Kallhoff said. He lost that teacher and doesn’t want that to happen again.

Some of the benefits for teachers aren’t monetary. The system runs a “teacher bus” between its four schools at the end of the school day, picking up children and taking them to their educator parents. That way, fetching their children is one less thing teachers have to worry about, Kalloff said.

Alabama has a teacher shortage that educators say has reached crisis level, especially in rural areas, and there are fewer new teachers coming out of colleges. So, Kallhoff and other superintendents are doing whatever they can — whatever their budgets allow — to attract and keep educators.

Even with the $4,000 signing bonus, something not all systems can afford to offer, Kallhoff has had a special education position open for more than a year.

Systems need help, he says.

“There need to be some statewide initiatives,” Kallhoff said. “We’re quick to give tax breaks to large corporations. Why not a tax break for math, science and special education teachers?”

Task Force Looking for Solutions

A task force of educators and education groups was created last year to study the shortages, the causes and possible solutions. Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, is on it. He said his organization and others have requested from state leaders money for scholarships for math, science, computer science and special education teaching students who commit to work in Alabama for a set amount of time.

“If we could fund 600 teachers at $15,000 for the first year, that would be $9 million,” Hollingsworth said. “That is a start.”

If the student doesn’t complete the program or if they leave Alabama, then they would have to repay the scholarship, he said.

“This would allow us to identify high school students and recruit them into the shortage areas we need filled.”

The 2019 legislative session begins this week in Montgomery. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said additional money for scholarships is possible in the 2020 education budget.

Orr, chair of the Senate education budget committee, said lawmakers are “looking at all options because the shortage of teachers in math, science, special education and few other select areas is well known and not going away.”

Last year in Alabama public schools, there were more than 1,700 educators in grades eight through 12 who were not certified in the core subjects they were teaching. Meanwhile, the number of teachers coming out of education colleges and programs dropped by about 40 percent between 2011 and 2016.

In recent years, a small amount of teacher scholarship money has been added to the budget. There’s $725,000 for potential math and science teachers this year, up from $325,000 last year, its initial year.

And there is a program to put teachers in a rural region of the state.

Black Belt Teacher Corps

Haley Sager is a 23-year-old first-year teacher from Vestavia Hills.

She has 16 kindergarteners in her Demopolis City Schools classroom. She’s taught them to say, “I rocked it!” when they grasp a new skill or fact.

“Seeing them learn things they don’t know, their eyes really do light up,” Sager said recently. Sager said she’s always wanted to be a teacher, but it was a scholarship program that put her in Demopolis.

The University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps awards up to $10,000 in scholarships for juniors and seniors in education who pledge to teach in the region for three continuous years after they graduate.

“We’re doing the best we can to help educators who want to live, teach and stay in the Black Belt,” said Susan Hester, coordinator of the program. It also includes a mentoring program for the young educators.

“I’ve always felt called to the Black Belt and then this door opened and it’s been wonderful,” Sager said. She and her husband had their first baby last fall. She took a month of maternity leave before returning to her students.

Since 2017, state lawmakers have dedicated $250,000 a year in the state’s education budget to the program. It’s up for renewal in the 2020 budget.

The program has put 14 new teachers in Black Belt classrooms, and 11 more education majors are receiving scholarships now.

“It’s really life-changing for some of these students,” Hester said.

University of West Alabama alumna Haley Richardson, 24, didn’t start out as an education major. She was studying nursing, but she was a substitute teacher her freshman year to earn some extra money. After some time in classrooms, she changed her major.

Like Sager, Richardson graduated debt-free last year because of the Teacher Corps program and committed to three years in the Black Belt. She’s from a small town in the region and said she’s is likely to stay longer than the required time.

“My kids are my family,” Richardson said about her second-grade students at University Charter School in Livingston. “A lot of people think, oh, it’s just a small town, they don’t have anything … . But small towns, you just feel like a big happy family.”

In addition to more scholarship money, the teacher shortage task force has asked lawmakers to change retirement benefits in an effort to attract more teachers and is asking for alternative paths to certify teachers.

“We must use many different approaches to solve the crisis of uncertified teachers working with our children and grandchildren if we expect to move all of our students to be successful,” Hollingsworth said.

More Stories on the Teacher Shortage

Alabama’s Teacher Shortages Reach ‘Crisis’ Level

Lawmakers, Advocates Discussing Increases to Teachers’ Retirement Benefits to Battle Teacher Shortage

Behind Teacher Shortage: Fewer New Educators Graduating From Alabama Schools