Originally created 08/08/99

Recruiting gone well



ALLENDALE, S.C. -- It's been five years since Carrie Gibbs held a piece of chalk or scribbled a math equation on the blackboard. Five years since she graded a test or kept a pupil after school for flying paper airplanes.

Lately, the retired teacher provides an ear to adolescents who attend her Saturday Bible study at Happy Home Baptist Church, where her textbook is the King James version.

Between verses, children -- even those on the honor roll -- tell her they feel increasingly alone and alienated, unable to connect with their parents, teachers and sometimes even classmates.

Ms. Gibbs' is the hand that rescues them from a world defined by computer games, television and movies. With a motherly manner, yet tough-love attitude, she inspires hope for a brighter tomorrow. And she will continue spouting her words of wisdom, beginning Aug. 23 when she returns to an Allendale classroom.

Ms. Gibbs is one of three former teachers who've come out of retirement to help revive the beleagured district.

Her motivation for doing so is heartfelt: "I really care for the children here, and figured that there was no greater time to help my community."

Helping the downtrodden is part of Ms. Gibbs' character. Her father was a farmer, her mother a teacher. And with many mouths to feed, there were some meager times. Still, the family was willing to give what they had and asked for nothing in return.

"Neighbors must help neighbors," Ms. Gibbs said.

At one point this summer the district was struggling to fill nearly 70 teacher vacancies, including some openings that had not been filled for two school years.

Before the Department of Education wrested control of the system, 36 openings remained. But since July 29, the district has signed six contracts and has 14 others pending.

By a unanimous vote, the South Carolina Board of Education two weeks ago authorized the Education Department to assume management of Allendale County schools. The action marked the first time in Palmetto State history that the state has intervened to manage a local school system.

Deputy State Superintendent Leonard McIntyre said response to Allendale's teacher shortage has been tremendous. Applicants have answered a national ad for teachers and responded to Allendale's new Internet site.

"People from throughout the nation have responded to our call for help, and have said they want to be a part of something important," Dr. McIntyre said. "The bottom line is that people everywhere are concerned for the well-being of Allendale's children."

Recruitment has been so successful that Dr. McIntyre predicts every classroom will have a permanent teacher when classes resume in two weeks.

ALLENDALE COUNTY ISN'T

the only Palmetto State school district with a pressing need for teachers. Districts everywhere are in a crunch.

Students are entering schools in record numbers nationwide. But while demand for teachers is escalating, nearly 1 million teachers are expected to retire over the next 10 years, compounding the shortage that already has stung many South Carolina schools, the state teacher recruitment center said.

To combat the problem, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley says school districts must recognize that low wages are turning people away from the profession.

Even worse, poor training has forced some teachers out of classrooms. Others, fed up with an overwhelming bureaucracy, have skedaddled.

"If we are going to entice more Americans to enter teaching we need to offer them fair and competitive salaries," said Mr. Riley, when recently addressing Southeastern educators at the Summit on Teacher Quality. "We cannot expect to get good teachers on the cheap."

Schools also need to do better at retaining teachers -- 22 percent of all new teachers quit during their first three years. In some urban areas, that number more than doubles. That's because new teachers are often given the most difficult classes and asked to coordinate extracurricular activities, Mr. Riley said. And they're rarely given professional guidance or mentors.

"Even morticians have some form of apprenticeship," the former South Carolina governor said. "But new teachers are on their own."

But South Carolina has a secret weapon.

GAINING LITTLE NOTICE

in the state budget lawmakers approved earlier this summer is a provision that lets school districts fill full-time teacher vacancies with retired teachers such as Ms. Gibbs and pay them big money.

That provision raised the ceiling on income a retiree could earn. Low limits had previously discouraged some experienced teachers from returning to the classroom.

For retired teachers to qualify for the income cap waiver, they must be willing to teach where a certified shortage exists, or in districts that are scrambling to fill slots.

Fourteen districts, including Allendale, McCormick and Saluda, are on a list of critical-need districts, which have openings for teachers of math, science, foreign language, business, media specialists, special education and art.

Before lawmakers inserted the teacher proviso in the budget, retirees wooed back to work lost their retirement pay if they made more than $15,500 in a year. Now the maximum is $25,000.

"The need for teachers right now is great, but the numbers are going to get worse," said Janice Poda, director of the South Carolina Center for Teacher Recruitment. "So recruiting from the pool of retirees gives us another potential supply of teachers to fill those needs."

Even if retirees aren't looking for a long-term commitment, they're still needed to fill short-term gaps. Otherwise, substitutes -- most of whom aren't certified -- carry a classroom until a replacement is found, Dr. Poda said.

With districts nationwide desperate to fill teaching slots, the profession is big business. And those that can afford it are pulling out all the stops.

Some are offering to pay off student loans, while others pay signing bonuses and relocation costs -- a common practice in the Palmetto State. Even richer districts are paying for house closing costs and sending employees to graduate school.

"You'll eventually see the stakes getting higher as time passes," said Dr. Poda. "It will definitely be worthwhile to be a teacher."

Chasiti Kirkland covers education for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.