WSAZ Investigates | Where are the Teachers?

WSAZ Investigates | Where are the Teachers?
Published: Aug. 31, 2022 at 6:45 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A new school year means children are off to a new classroom, but filling that classroom with a teacher is becoming more and more difficult.

The West Virginia Department of Education recorded about 1,200 vacancies statewide last year, and officials worry the problem will be worse this year when new numbers are released in October.

“I’d say we’re heading toward a crisis, and we need to be taking strong action,” said Debra K. Sullivan, a member of the state Board of Education since 2017.

The biggest gap exists in high school and vocational education -- coming up nearly 350 educators short, according to the most recent data compiled last fall.

Special needs ranked second, 335 vacancies, across all grade levels.

Elementary school, including kindergarten and pre-K, registered 240 vacancies, with the state’s middle schools following behind at 196. The state also lacked 81 counselors, according to the report.

What does it mean for my child?

Education officials say the shortage does not mean students will be without a teacher, but the teacher they have may be uncertified.

That concerns parents like Andrew Ballard of Sissonville.

“They main thing is they might not be teaching them the correct thing,” he said. “They might only be teaching them part of what the big picture is, not the whole picture.”

“These kids aren’t going to know what they need to know,” said Gelie King, a grandparent from Alum Creek. “How are they going to go out into the world as they get bigger to go on to college? How are they going to have the experience, if they don’t have the right teachers.”

Sullivan, a longtime educator turned state board member, has been watching vacancies mount for years.

Five years ago, she attributed the trend to teachers getting older.

A few years later, she noticed a significant drop in new teachers to take their place -- a problem she says doesn’t appear will fix itself any time soon as the Department of Education says half of the state’s 18 teacher prep colleges produced fewer than 20 teaching graduates this year.

Three programs had zero graduates.

WSAZ NewsChannel 3 wanted to find out why, and what is being done to fill the gap.

“Why are those numbers so low of graduates coming out of college?” asked NewsChannel 3 Investigative Reporter Curtis Johnson.

“Maybe they think teaching is stressful,” said Carla Warren, director of the state Education Department’s Office of Teaching and Learning Educator Development and Support.

“They think teaching doesn’t make enough money to make a living wage,” Warren added. “They may not feel like they have the content expertise to be successful in education preparation programs. There are multiple variables.”

A widespread problem

The teacher shortage is widespread, impacting suburban areas of the state’s Eastern Panhandle and rural counties in southern West Virginia.

Berkeley County leads the state with 243 vacancies, according to the data compiled last fall. Its neighbor, Jefferson County, followed with 80.

In southern West Virginia, Logan and Wyoming counties are among the hardest hit with each tallying 56 vacancies.

Logan was among seven counties in early August to receive state board authorization to use retired teachers as substitutes in areas of critical need, such as mathematics, science and language arts. Officials say it has become a reoccurring request for Logan County and many others.

Even Kanawha -- the state’s largest county -- is feeling the pinch.

A district, which before the pandemic it typically came up about 60 to 80 teachers short, recently sat at 192 vacancies, according to Ronald Pauley, executive director for human resources at Kanawha County Schools.

Pauley said the situation became so serious, the district took more aggressive steps. That includes holding events to help non-certified substitutes fast-track their application.

“You guys haven’t taken this approach before? Why was it necessary to go to this level,” Johnson asked.

“In the past, we’ve been able to fill those positions,” Pauley replied.

Kanawha County’s efforts paid off. Pauley reported last week the county had cut its number of vacancies by almost 50.

Elsewhere in West Virginia, last fall’s report showed 22 counties reported 10 or fewer vacancies, including Calhoun, Nicholas, Putnam and Wirt counties.

We also checked on teacher vacancies in Kentucky and Ohio. The data is a little harder to compile -- as each state and each individual school district tallies those numbers different.

In Kentucky, officials report nearly 1,900 positions statewide went unfilled in 2021.

In Ohio, the state couldn’t provide us a number, so we checked in with some districts in counties across our region. Most we spoke with were short about two to six teachers -- with a few fully staffed exceptions.

Was enough done early enough?

West Virginia’s teacher shortage has doubled since since 2015, going from going from 600 vacancies to about 1,200, according to the most recent numbers.

WSAZ took the issue to Sullivan and F. Scott Rotruck, one of the state school board’s longest serving members.

“Should there have been more done?” Johnson asked.

“I think when you look back on a number of things you usually conclude, geez, there’s things we could have done that we didn’t do,” Rotruck replied. “So sure, there probably were other things we could have done then. But the problem wasn’t as apparent then. As the numbers began to grow, the bigger problem became more apparent, as it became more apparent, we did more to address it.”

Sullivan believes the increased vacancies can be traced back to 2018 when thousands of teachers walked off the job, onto the picket line and into the Capitol calling for higher pay.

“Was enough done, early enough to fix this problem?” Johnson asked.

“I think there were people who did not take action, and I’m not going to say it was in the education world,” Sullivan replied. “I think it could have been blunted a bit, if more action had been taken earlier.”

“Such as?” Johnson inquired.

“I think salary is an issue,” Sullivan replied. “People become teachers because it is a calling, but it’s not a calling to struggle financially.”

Their protest ended with lawmakers agreeing to a 5% raise -- their first raise in six years. Since then, teachers have received two additional raises, including another 5% boost this year.

Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, said the raises are appreciated -- and more increases are needed -- but teachers also need support.

“Stop criticizing them. It gets to you after a while,” he said. “It’s very discouraging, and you look for a way out. I’ve heard teachers say, ‘I can’t do this any more. I feel such stress. If my test scores aren’t at a certain level, I get criticized for that. If the children are not attending school, I get criticized for that.’”

Finding a solution

As for what can be done now, state officials say they’re hopeful a new initiative called the Grow Your Own Pathway will help.

It’s a pilot project that takes hold this school year. It allows high school students to earn college credits and even get some classroom experience, all before graduating high school.

“We’re taking students from the community and preparing them for the community,” Warren said. “So we’re breaking down the barriers of cost, time and we’re giving them high levels of support for them to be successful.”

For Sullivan, Grow Your Own is a good step but certainly not an overnight solution.

“It’s not something that in one year, you’re going to be able to show more teachers in the classroom,” Johnson asked.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Sullivan replied. “This is multiple years. It starts in high school and goes on through college. And then so we’re talking a 6-, 7-, 8-year trajectory.”

“Do you feel that it’s going to make a difference,” Johnson inquired.

“I think at the end of the day, yes, it will,” Sullivan replied. “Why is that, because you’re getting children involved at an age when they can see the future. There is a path, and there is money involved there, their tuition for college courses will be paid starting in high school.”

But high school students are not the only answer -- the state says it also needs more adults to take up teaching.

That’s where state officials say alternatives to the traditional, four-year degree can help. For instance, Warren said last year one of those programs led to 57 teachers becoming fully certified.

Pauley estimates Kanawha County has filled 100 positions with teachers who received an alternative certification.

“The people who seek alternative certification are individuals who maybe owned a business or maybe they were in a different profession,” he said. “And then they’ve determined that at this point in their life that they want to teach and they’ve been excited about education, but they don’t want to go and do four more years or five more years.”

“And solving this problem, is going to take people like that,” Johnson asked.

“Most definitely,” Pauley replied.

Retention is another focus.

West Virginia offers an annual bonus of $3,500 to teachers who attain national certification, Warren said. She explained some counties give even more money on top of that. The costs of getting and renewing that certification can be covered by the state.

For more information on West Virginia’s Grow Your Own program and its alternative paths to teacher certification, click or tap here.

For more information on attaining national certification, teachers can visit here or here.