Erica Niemann came from a long line of educators and knew she wanted to teach. But during her first year at Rock Hill’s Sunset Park Elementary, she sought a lot of advice.
Sally Hartgrove, a reading coach at Sunset Park with a 37-year career in education, served as a mentor and helped Niemann learn the ropes. They talked about how to set up her first-grade classroom, planned lessons and met for coaching sessions.
“This really and truly helped me get started, and now in my second year, I still go to Mrs. Hartgrove all the time,” Niemann said. “Sally has always helped me with anything and everything I need.”
As South Carolina looks toward a looming statewide teacher shortage, brought on by the trend of more teachers leaving the classroom than entering it, the issue of hiring and retaining teachers is a problem that’s likely to get a lot more attention.
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Mentoring programs for first-year teachers – like the one that brought together Hartgrove and Niemann, which are required by the state – have been one effort to help attract and retain teachers.
High school Teacher Cadet programs and college-level teaching fellows scholarship programs are also being used to attract new teachers.
School district leaders across York County say they have yet to experience much trouble finding and hiring teachers. When students returned to classrooms last week, the Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Clover and York school districts opened their doors with schools almost fully staffed, aside from an occasional last-minute vacancy.
However, that’s not the case at schools across the state, especially in poorer, more rural areas. Educators say those problems could be more widespread in the future.
More than 5,300 teachers in South Carolina did not return to their classrooms last fall, according to a 2016 report from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, based at Winthrop University. That number has been rising for the past three years, CERRA said.
Meanwhile, an average of only 2,180 South Carolina college graduates completed a teacher education program annually over the past five years, said CERRA, which produces an annual report on teacher supply and demand.
The CERRA report said the problem is magnified by a large number of teachers who leave early in their careers: 39 percent of teachers who did not return last year left in the first five years, while 14 percent left after just a year or less.
“More people are leaving, and more people are leaving early in their careers,” said Jennifer Garrett, CERRA coordinator of research and program development. “And the numbers of people going into teaching is declining.
“You put those things together, and you can do the simple math. It does not seem to be getting better.”
A teacher shortage has been felt in pockets of the state, Garrett said, especially in the poor rural areas along the Interstate 95 corridor and the Savannah River and Lowcountry regions.
“It’s been heading that way,” Garrett said. “Eventually, it’s going to start affecting more districts that may not have had those problems in the past.”
Tanya Campbell, chief human resources director with the Rock Hill school district, said Rock Hill works closely with Winthrop, the University of South Carolina-Upstate and other area colleges to hire new teachers.
“We try to connect with their graduates sooner,” said Campbell, who said a teacher recruiter may observe teacher candidates during the course of their training. “We are recruiting early, and we try to retain the people we do have.”
York County is viewed as good place to live, Campbell said, which has made it easier to hire teachers. “We are in a very attractive, supportive area,” she said.
Clover schools, which opened a new elementary school and a new middle school to replace Clover Middle, was also fully staffed, though it added 27 new teaching positions to accommodate enrollment growth.
Millicent Dickey, Clover’s human resources director, said the district attracts teachers from Charlotte and Gastonia in North Carolina as well as South Carolina.
Unlike some school districts, Dickey said, Clover does not hire retired teachers at a reduced rate, which makes it easier to hire them. And teachers who live outside the district can enroll their children in Clover schools, she said.
“Our colleagues in other places really feel it,” Dickey said, referring to a looming shortage. “They have to do a lot of recruiting to get folks and we are fortunate not to have to do that.
“I do think we will have more and more teachers who are opting to retire. Replacing them will eventually get to be more and more difficult.”
Olive Love, human resources director for York schools, agreed that hiring teachers may get harder, though he has not seen that yet. Good school facilities, strong leadership and a community that supports education are selling points, he said.
“The biggest thing we can do is to make ourselves attractive,” Love said. “It’s going to get competitive, but if you get a reputation for taking care of your people, and being a warm and friendly district, you are going to attract teachers.”
Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077