/How grassroots efforts are trying to solve the teacher shortage crisis

How grassroots efforts are trying to solve the teacher shortage crisis

Nonprofit Mississippi News This story is part three of a series on the teacher shortage in Mississippi. It was produced by The Hechinger Report (a non-profit, independent news agency that focuses on inequality and innovation within education) in partnership with Mississippi Today. You can sign up for the Hechinger newsletter here and the Mississippi Today education edition newsletter here. The first story is about the growing teacher crisis. The second story is about districts being forced into online programs. CLARKSDALE, Miss. Toni McWilliams, a native of Cleveland, didn’t feel like she was using her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in business administration to help her work as an administrative secretary at a middle school in her home town. This job, which was only $19,000, barely provided enough income to support her young daughters. McWilliams decided that she wanted to teach. She said, “My mom had always encouraged my to teach.” The Praxis exams were a big hurdle in my way. The Praxis exams consist of four to five tests that measure teachers’ knowledge in math and reading. McWilliams passed the Praxis reading section in March 2015 but failed the writing and math sections. McWilliams passed the writing portion of her second attempt, but failed math. McWilliams failed math eight times over the next three-years, often by just two to three points. As she spoke of her struggle, her eyes welled up with tears. “I was just an administrator trying to become a teacher,” she said. In May 2017, a friend introduced her to Regional Initiatives for Sustainable Education (RISE), a Delta-based non-profit that offered tutoring for Praxis students. It was a lifeline for McWilliams. McWilliams stated that she felt certain God was answering all her prayers. Mississippi has a severe shortage of teachers. Last year, 19% of teachers in seven Delta districts were not certified to teach. In some cases, the number of teachers without certification reached 34%. The percentage of uncertified teachers in many districts has increased by more than 80% since 2013-14. McWilliams’ struggles to become a certified teacher illustrate the severity of the problem. Three requirements are required to become a teacher in Mississippi: A bachelor’s degree, a traditional or alternative teacher training program, and passing the Praxis. There are different Praxis exams that must be taken. Teachers who score 21 or more on the ACT (the Mississippi average is 18) may opt to skip the Praxis Core. This includes the writing, reading and math tests. Most educators take the Praxis II exams after passing the core tests. These tests are focused on different subject areas. For example, a high school teacher in history would take the Praxis II history exam. Many candidates like McWilliams don’t have the necessary scores to pass the Praxis I core requirements. Erica Webber Jones, a 15-year Praxis instructor and secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Association of Educators said that the organization holds monthly or sometimes weekly training sessions for teacher applicants. Half of the 30-plus recruits who attend are teachers, secretaries and substitute teachers looking to be classroom teachers. They often struggle to pass the Praxis sections or complete alternative route training programs. These programs aren’t usually offered at convenient times or places for working professionals. Adrienne Hudson, an educator from Coahoma county who founded RISE, stated that people shouldn’t take this test more than once. These repeated attempts come with a price: A Praxis Core exam costs $150.00, while a retake of one section costs $90.00. For a two-hour test, non-core subjects cost around $120. The cost of the Praxis test can quickly add up for those who have to take it more than once. Tameka Walker, a Clarksdale native, has reported that she spent approximately $4,500 on the Praxis. She previously worked as an uncertified teacher at Clarksdale High School. Mississippi recently took steps to assist more teachers after years of little action to address the teacher shortage crisis. The state hired a full time employee in July 2018 to help with teacher retention and recruitment. This new employee helped to expand Praxis preparation programs in the state and secured a $4.1million grant to help create new routes for teachers to become licensed. Similar: Call from former educators to return to school. These efforts by the state, and others, to help teacher candidates get certified are still in their infancy. RISE, a small, but highly successful, non-profit organization, and William Carey University School of Education’s alternative teacher-training program are currently struggling to fill this training gap. McWilliams and other potential teachers have access to more resources, such as Praxis tutoring, workshops, and easier access to teacher training. Experts believe these programs will be able to fulfill two crucial needs, namely the alleviation of the teacher shortage and the promotion of economic development in the Mississippi Delta. A higher number of qualified teachers means more teachers in schools and more middle-class salaries. “We came up with a plan to train our own teachers so that we could be No. 1. Help with the teacher shortage. 2. To retain teachers in Mississippi, as we were not receiving pay raises for educators at the time,” Webber-Jones, the Praxis instructor, stated. Webber Jones, who was a Praxis tutor for three days, expressed her admiration for Hudson’s dedication to helping RISE get Delta teachers certified. Hudson, who was a teacher and assistant principal in the past, founded RISE two year ago while she was at Delta State University. She was writing her dissertation about the teacher shortage in Delta. While she was working on her doctorate, Hudson decided to volunteer for an organization that addressed the issue. Surprised, she didn’t find one. She said that she felt the need to be a revolutionary, the Fannie Lou Hamer for education and the Mississippi Delta. Hudson wanted to create an organization that would help aspiring teachers at multiple levels. She offers tutoring opportunities for teacher candidates and sponsors conferences about how to reduce the teacher shortage. Hudson’s first year as RISE was a success. She had three employees, 12 volunteers and a $25,000 budget. No one got paid. Although the organization has a small staff, they now have a budget of approximately $125,000 per year from donations, conference registration fees and a grant from The Walton Family Foundation, which is $90,000. The Walton Family Foundation is just one of the many funders that Mississippi Today has. Hudson stated that the group has assisted about 80 teachers in Praxis and ACT trainings and workshops. It has also hosted 240 teachers, and aspiring teachers, at what RISE leaders hope to be an annual conference. RISE leaders claim that they have helped at least 30 educators pass the Praxis exams so far. Toni McWilliams was one of those teachers last summer. She needed assistance with math word problems when she started RISE’s programs. Her instructor taught her how to identify key terms to simplify the problems. McWilliams passed the Praxis exam at the University of Mississippi on Friday, just days after her June last session. The ninth time was the charm: she passed. Finally. “When I passed the Praxis, I got in there and got down on my knees.” After passing the Praxis I, Hudson encourages all candidates to continue their studies. McWilliams was back at class last September listening to Hudson explain to the group of four candidates (three women, one man) that there is a severe shortage in special education teachers in Delta. This means there will always be vacancies. McWilliams’ six-year-old daughter played in the room while her mother flipped through sheets that detailed what she could expect for the Praxis II special educational test. RISE’s convenience is that most participants are mostly women and can bring their children or grandchildren to sessions if they do not have child care. The class took an eight-question practice exam. Hudson then reviewed the content the test takers needed to know about special education Praxis. This included questions regarding possible classroom scenarios and federal privacy laws. Hudson explained to the group that SPED information is confidential. RISE leaders assisted 30 candidates to become teachers. However, the Delta region still requires at least 402 teachers in order to address the teacher shortage. In October 2017, RISE helped teachers become certified at William Carey University, Hattiesburg. Former superintendent of Meridian Public School district and dean of William Carey University School of Education, Ben Burnett spearheaded the program that sent professors to schools to teach classes after regular school hours. Residents who are interested in teaching can take advantage the free courses. They don’t need to borrow money or find an alternative college. They also promise to teach in their school district for three consecutive years once they are certified. The program received a huge response. Burnett stated that as soon as the university started recruiting candidates, mainly people who had been working as substitutes or teaching assistants in schools, there was an immediate response of “about 60 to 65” interested. William Carey is the instructor for the program. A grant from Phil Hardin Foundation funds tuition for prospective teachers. According to Burnett, approximately 55 people have completed the university’s alternative training programs. Burnett’s hometown district, Meridian Public School District was one of the first collaborations for the William Carey program. This partnership primarily assisted candidates who were currently employed at schools. He said that the benefit of working with school employees is that they already have a desire to join Meridian schools. They just need help in navigating the certification process which Burnett described as a “pretty difficult process”. Related: How one Mississippi college tackles teacher shortages Rubria Moss, who was working in Meridian as a substitute teacher for the past three years, is currently enrolled in William Carey’s program. She majored as an undergraduate in social work but plans to become a full-time teacher of special education. She said that she was excited about the prospect of this program because, despite having an undergraduate degree, it didn’t make sense to borrow any more money. William Carey brought similar programs to Pearl River Community College and the Ocean Springs School district, as well as four other Delta school districts. Burnett stated that he hopes to see the programs grow and encourage other universities to follow the model. He stated that he hopes to replicate his program in other parts of the state. Teachers have complained for years that the state has not done enough to address the growing teacher shortage crisis. However, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), recently introduced several policies that could help. The department established a provisional one-year license in November 2017 for teachers who have not passed Praxis. Teachers who do not have a degree or certificate in education are required to pass the Praxis in order to renew their license for the second year. They also need to enroll in an alternative training program. RISE’s Hudson called this change a “Band Aid Fix”, noting that temporary licenses have been tried in the past with little success. She said, “It’s the same thing we’ve done over the past 20 years.” Cory Murphy, executive Director of the Office of Teaching and Leading, MDE said that the provisional license was intended to be more of an recruiting tool than a permanent fix. He said that the provisional license is meant to help individuals who are qualified to become full-certified in the pipeline. He also stated that the salaries of new educators during the grace year are significantly higher than those who worked as substitutes or assistants. Related: Could paraprofessionals be the solution to America’s shortage in bilingual teachers? The state board of education approved in May 2018 a measure to lower Praxis math scores required for certification. Cortez Moss, a former school administrator, was also hired by the state board of education to concentrate on teacher recruitment. In order to provide free Praxis training, he is forming partnerships with colleges and exploring new paths for high school students and college students to become teachers. Moss stated that 1,067 applicants have signed up. The MDE announced in January that it would host four additional Praxis training sessions throughout the state during the spring semester. Moss revealed in September that his office was developing two pilot programs which could open up two routes to teacher certification. These pilot programs will be implemented in four districts by MDE thanks to a $4.1 million Kellogg Foundation grant. (The Kellogg Foundation is one of the many funders for The Hechinger report. The state claims it is committed to improving teacher retention and recruitment, even though it may take years. Murphy said that it is not going to be easy. Hudson stated that she hopes that the state will also educate high school students about teaching as a viable and valuable career. She said, “We are not encouraging that and nurturing it at a young time.” Others agreed with her that even though the state is expanding its efforts, there will always remain a place for personalized and localized aspects of programs such as William Carey and RISE. Burnett, of William Carey, stated that Praxis requires someone to help you. “You need somebody to tell you your scores and what you should do.” McWilliams, among others, agree that RISE and its other programs are personalized and very helpful. McWilliams was able to pass both the Praxis math exam and the special education Praxis II exam because of this personal attention. On December 5, she received the good news. McWilliams said, “God used Rise to [help] people such as me.” Although she is grateful for Hudson’s help, she knows that her journey isn’t over. McWilliams hopes to continue volunteering with RISE in the future. McWilliams now has her own classroom and is able to teach high school students. She also hopes to inspire the students who are often taught by inexperienced, unqualified teachers. This is the last story in a series on the teacher shortage in Mississippi. It was produced by The Hechinger Report (a non-profit, independent news agency focused on inequality in education and innovation in education) in partnership with Mississippi Today. You can sign up for the Hechinger newsletter here and the Mississippi Today education edition newsletter here. The first story is about the growing teacher crisis. The second story is about districts being forced into online programs. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to the Spring Member Drive today. _