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Mecklenburg trustees mull imported help to counter teacher shortage

SoVaNow.com / February 06, 2019
The Mecklenburg County School Board held a special meeting Monday night to discuss two pressing issues — teacher recruitment and retention, and the design of the county’s consolidated secondary school in Baskerville.

According to Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols, the meeting was called to expedite decisions on how to deal with a worsening county teacher shortage. Trustees also discussed construction of the new countywide school for grades six-12 ahead of likely votes on both issues when the School Board convenes for its regular meeting on Feb. 19.

Monday’s meeting was for informational purposes only, said Nichols.

Of no surprise to school trustees, Director of Personnel Nan Alga laid out the challenge: “We have a shortage of teachers.” Of the 350 teachers in the school division, seven percent have less than one year of full-time teaching experience, nearly 13 percent are only provisionally licensed, 2.5 percent are teaching outside of their endorsement area because of need, and positions in math, Spanish, English, earth science, and library media specialist have gone unfilled in the current school year.

“We are unable to find the qualified staff that is needed in our division to best benefit students,” said Alga.

She attributed the shortage in part to salary issues. “Mecklenburg does not fare well in our division or across the state as far as teacher salaries. We are struggling in that area,” Alga said, further noting that salary concerns could also explain, in part, the high number of provisionally licensed teachers who work in the school division with fewer students pursuing careers in education.

“The bottom line is student achievement. We want to make certain we hire the most qualified teachers that will stay with us to get that momentum going and serve our children well so the school division will be successful,” said Alga.

Alga said offering bonuses to newly hired teachers in areas of critical need — as trustees did last year — has been somewhat successful. While recruiting teachers for the 2018-19 academic year, Mecklenburg County Public Schools offered $2,500 bonuses to teachers in math, Spanish and special education, with $1,500 paid out in August and the balance of $1,000 to be paid in August 2019. Of the 19 open positions, 14 were filled.

Teachers hired by Mecklenburg County Public Schools to fill positions in math, Spanish and special education prior to the 2018-19 school year were not offered and were not paid a bonus.

Signing bonuses will not resolve the greater issue — the decline in students pursuing education degrees in college. Schools such as Christopher Newport, Radford University, Virginia State University and Hampton University, the traditional pipeline for teachers in Virginia, are graduating just over 220 education majors in the spring of 2019. The teaching pool becomes more limited when looking at those qualified to teach specific subject areas. Alga said of Radford University’s 133 potential graduates, only four students will be qualified to teach math or science.

An immediate solution, Alga said, would be to partner with Educational Partners International, a company that brings in qualified K-12 teachers from outside the United States.

David Long with EPI said it is an Exchange Visitor Program authorized by the U.S. State Department to sponsor teachers for K-12 placements in public, private, and charter schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Florida.

The teachers who come from various countries throughout the world must be English proficient, meet licensing and credentialing requirements of the state where they will work, have at a Bachelor’s degree and at least two years of teaching experience, and can remain in the United States for up to five years.

EPI handles all of the logistics, Alga said, including vetting the candidates, paying for relocation expenses and health insurance, locating housing, and providing a mentor to work with the teachers. The schools have the final say on whether to hire any candidate.

The school division must pay an annual fee of $12,500 per year for each teacher, plus the teacher’s salary, but will not have to pay into the Virginia Retirement Fund or health insurance premiums, or make FICA payments for the first year and a half. Therefore, Alga said the school division can save nearly $2,000 per year per teacher by hiring educators through EPI.

Glenn Edwards said a similar program was tried by the division in the past. “We had some hiccups,” he explained, one of which was a communication problem. ”Students had difficulty understanding the teachers.”

Long assured Edwards and the others board members that EPI requires all teaching candidates to have what he called “advanced proficiency” in English. He also said, if any teacher was found deficient, EPI would work with the teacher to address the problem or remove the teacher.

A vote on whether work with EPI is planned for the regular board meeting.

Alga also asked the board to consider three other long-term solutions to their teacher shortage, under the mantel of “grow your own.” The programs, Teachers for Tomorrow, Teacher Scholars Program, and Call Me MISTER Program, are mentoring programs designed to encourage high school students to pursue a career in education.

“None of these are quick fixes,” said Alga, adding that the Call Me MISTER Program has met with some success in Cumberland County.

Director of Secondary Education Jeffrey Scales said he has experience with the Call Me MISTER Program from his time working in Cumberland County. That program has been offered by Longwood University for the past 11 years. Its goal is to address the critical shortage of African American male teachers particularly among Virginia’s lowest performing schools.

Typically, up to 15 students are chosen annually to participate in the program, most of whom are first-time college participants. It provides college scholarship opportunities up to $19,000, based on need.

Superintendent Nichols said there will be number of career camp opportunities offered to Mecklenburg County students this coming summer and he hopes to include the Call Me MISTER summer camp at Longwood University among them.

The Halifax County school division currently has 17 students enrolled in Teachers for Tomorrow. As this is their first year with the program, Alga said it is too soon to tell if it will be successful. Henrico County Public Schools is offering the Teacher Scholars program to its students, and has already hired one special education teacher who went through the program.

No decision was made on whether to pursue any of the grow-your-own teaching programs in Mecklenburg schools. A vote is expected on the issue at the Feb. 19 meeting. Wanda Bailey asked the public to “weigh in” on the teacher shortage issue ahead of that vote.

Alga said she also has several recruiting trips planned both in and out of Virginia. This prompted trustee Lindell Palmer to suggest she bring young teachers with her on these trips. Alga said this has been done with some success.

Sam Carroll with B&B Consultants, the engineering firm working on Mecklenburg County’s secondary school construction project, discussed some issues that have come up involving the property located at the intersection of Wooden Bridge Road and U.S. 58.

The existence of streams and wetlands on the site means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several other federal agencies are involved in “the permitting process, which could take up to six months,” Carroll said.

For safety reasons, Carroll is recommending the school division create a new entrance into the property from Wooden Bridge Road. The existing access point, which is a sharp angle off Wooden Bridge Road, is too difficult for school buses to maneuver. To create this new and more suitable entrance, Carroll said the school may have to purchase additional land or easements from surrounding property owners.

Another issue they are dealing with involves the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Department officials are evaluating whether the old dilapidated homestead and barn and cemetery on the property are of historic significance. If so, they must be preserved. Carroll said there is also an area on the southwestern edge of the property that may be of archeological significance. Therefore, that property will have to remain untouched.

Carroll and architect Billy Upton of Ballou Justice Upton said that while the Department of Historic Resources looks into these issues, they asked for and received permission to move forward with other permitting and site preparation work on the condition they not disturb the potentially historic areas.

One proposed modification to the inside of the school facility drew criticism from chairman Dale Sturdifen. On the recommendation of coaches, physical education teachers and school principals, architects consolidated the weight room and the practice wrestling room in a single space. An earlier design included a wall separating the space into two smaller rooms.

Scales said that design limited the number of students who could use the weight room at any one time to less than 30. Since the weights are used by physical education classes, which can have upwards of 35 students, more space was needed.

Sturdifen said he was not pleased that he and other board members were not included in this decision process, and he pointedly informed the architects that future modifications need to be brought to the board before they are incorporated into the school design.

In other business, Nichols said Cypress Creek Renewables, a solar company based in Asheville, N.C., is offering a grant in excess of $100,000 for the school division to develop a curriculum that prepares students for careers in solar energy and for the division to install solar panels on the new school campus being built in Baskerville.

He also gave board members a heads-up that Director of Finance Christy Pfeffer is working on the budget for the 2020 fiscal year. As teacher salaries are a top priority, Nichols said that she is working up the cost of raising teacher pay so that first-year starting teachers will earn $40,000 per year. They currently earn $38,000.

Board member Gavin Honeycutt is heading a committee tasked with choosing a new name for the consolidated secondary schools and a logo and mascot. He is working with educators, school board members and business leaders. Students and members of the public can voice their opinion by participating in a survey found on the Mecklenburg County Public Schools website at http://www.mcpsweb.org and scroll down to “survey.”

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Comments

SIMPLE--Pay your qualified teachers MORE. Treat them BETTER and with RESPECT. Hire EFFICIENT building-level administrators. Offer SOLID, REAL support from Central Office. SIMPLE.

Comments

To "Former Meck Teacher" everything that you say is easier said than done. It sounds like a political campaign that doesn't elaborate on these measures. Trust me, in Mecklenburg County, where will the money come from to give a pay increase? Also, you fail to address a fundamental problem that the south side of VA is declining and it's so difficult to attract candidates here. Maybe what we need is teachers who are just as passionate about teaching as they are getting a pay raise.

Comments

Realist, I was born and raised here in Meck. and still live here with children in the system. How dare you ASSUME teachers are not passionate? We are NOT in this for the income--- but don't we deserve the pay scale counties surrounding us have? I have to ask-- are you a central office worker or teacher? I am curious because you address me here as if I have no clue and I am almost a 20 year veteran teacher. Your assumption is disgusting. I don't know a single teacher in it for the cash, but I know plenty who work hard and DESERVE better pay. Ah, you must be a board member. I think I am the realist here. Treating teachers like adults and with respect is free, and taking the effort to find efficient admin. is too. So is the support from CO. I am angry.

Comments

And by the way, Realist, there was not one nuance of politics in my post--- if you assume so, that says more about you than me. I haven't failed to address a thing but the truth.

Comments

Wow, if only the teachers were as passionate about teaching as they are about posting up here. It's hard to believe what things are coming to these days. When teachers can't control their own emotions, how are they to lead an example? It's time for the teachers to put the kids first and not their own agendas. Bring in the good teachers to Mecklenburg County!

Comments

DSSR, "Bring in the good teachers"? What are you implying about the current ones in Meck? SEE, you have proven my point--- respect should be given to our county's teachers. This comment is a slap in the face to all the county's educators. We don't have agendas! We are only doing our jobs. Are DSSR your initials or perhaps initials and tag? Yes, we can be angry when we read comments that imply we don't care and only want money. NO ONE goes into teaching for the cash. We do it because we love it. That doesn't mean we are satisfied with no pay raises in years to support our families and growing cost of living. Emotions make good leaders, too. It shows we care. This discussion is hurtful because it proves how little some residents (and if I am correct about your name) and leaders care for us in return.

Comments

My kids' teachers work hard every single day and have made such an impact not only for my children but for the community. Pay them what they deserve. The conversation happening in the post shows there's a problem in the county, but from te sound of it, the problem is more with taxpayers who don't want to pay more for teacher raises. I wonder about the DSSR initials, too. They sound familiar.

Comments

It's time for the teachers in this county to step up, start caring about the students, do their job and earn the pay


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