Chester struggles to find teachers housing

CHESTER -- Stacey Finch wants to move to Chester County, where she teaches first-graders at the Chester Park School of Literacy through Technology.

But the 26-year-old can't find a place to live in her students' hometown.

"I'd like to get to know the community that they're in," said Finch, who has unsuccessfully looked for a place in Chester for two years and now rents a house in McConnells, 12 miles away. "I'm ready to live in the area that I teach."

Finch's plight is common throughout a county where only five of the 75 teachers hired last year called Chester County home.

"We have teachers who come to us from outside of the district, who are not native to Chester, who would really live in Chester County if we had suitable housing," said Chester Superintendent Larry Heath. "The whole push there is to find and identify suitable, affordable housing, particularly for your beginning teachers, who are many times just starting out and don't have money to invest in housing."

Hopes for fixing the problem

A group of Chester County educators, businessmen and elected officials is working to solve the teacher housing problem.

The group met several months ago to discuss ways to keep teachers in Chester County. And last week, a developer talked to Chester County Chamber of Commerce President Jim Fuller about offering a survey for teachers, asking what they want in an apartment complex.

"It's a crying shame that a town this size does not have apartments that it can put young professionals in," Fuller said. "And then they wonder why the (teachers) don't want to stay here. There's nowhere for them to stay."

Only a handful of apartments are available in the city, Fuller said. Some are aging, and others are in neighborhoods considered unsafe for singles.

Fuller believes housing needs will become even more critical when plants such as Poly-America, which is expected to bring at least 400 jobs, are built in the county.

"People are going to have to understand: Within the next three to five years, Chester County's going to change," he said. "And it better be ready. 'Cause it's coming. It is flat coming."

Growth is on the way, but teachers need homes now. And they don't just want any apartment, either.

Meredith Garrison, a 23-year-old first grade teacher at Chester Park School of Literacy through Technology, said she lives in Rock Hill because she grew up there, and that's where her family lives.

But if she wanted to move, she'd look for certain amenities.

"Something new is obviously appealing," she said "Spacious, maybe have a gym and a pool. That would make me think about living in Chester more if there was someplace like that. And if I knew that there was a community of younger people."

A challenge across the state

The last quality Garrison mentioned is one other districts across the state are also trying to address. When one-third of the country's teachers leave the profession after less than five years, education leaders know something must be done.

Most teachers who live in Chester County either grew up there or have family connections to the area.

The state Department of Education is working on several teacher housing initiatives in communities across the state, said Mark Bounds, the department's deputy superintendent for educator quality and leadership.

Bounds said teachers who leave the field often do so because they don't feel connected to the communities they serve.

Having a local place to live helps "replace that feeling of isolation with a feeling of connectedness," he said. "If a teacher's driving 50 or 60 miles to come into the community, you really don't feel connected to the students or the community."

The most developed housing plan is in Marlboro County, where leaders hope a Teach House will open by the next school year. Bounds said the house is expected to accommodate a dozen or so new teachers, who will pay reduced rent, meaning they can pay off student loans or save for other goals.

"If you can bring a teacher on board and you give them a nice place to live," Bounds said, "it takes that burden away from them and allows them to focus on what they really need to be focused on, which is teaching our students."