AIKEN - "Help wanted" signs soon might be plastered on every window of Aiken County's education headquarters on Brookhaven Drive.
That's because administrators are scrambling to find several full-time teachers six weeks into the school year, and help-wanted signs are one thing they haven't tried. Four vacancies are in special education, one is in elementary physical education, and one is in high school math. At least two part-time positions are available, for an art instructor and a kindergarten assistant.
Administrators would not say Tuesday which schools are affected because "that just puts more pressure on principals," they said. And when news media were alerted to some of the schools, one principal said, "I don't want to be highlighted because I don't want to get 47 calls from parents asking me why I don't have a PE teacher."
At the beginning of summer, at least 80 teaching positions were open in Aiken County, and all but a few have been filled.
But for those that remain, the applicant pool has dwindled to zero.
"People just aren't applying," said Ginny Murphy, Aiken County's personnel manager. "But who knows who'll walk in off the street?"
That's just one option. Another is that Mrs. Murphy will find qualified applicants on South Carolina's teacher recruitment Web site. So far, she's hired 45 teachers from 15 states that way. The electronic connection has been a "godsend," she said. The only other option is that someone will answer an ad in the Ohio-Pennsylvania area, which has more education graduates than jobs, and be willing to move to Aiken County. But Mrs. Murphy has found that doesn't happen often, although someone from Connecticut will interview for a special education spot next month. Another position might be filled by the end of the week.
The teacher shortage is a big problem throughout the country. Hardest hit are cities and the fast-growing South and West. At the top of just about every educator's wish list are more math, science and technology teachers to replace those lured away by private businesses in a booming economy.
The Center for Teacher Recruitment in Rock Hill is surveying each of the state's 86 districts to find out how many teachers they need. As of last week, 237 positions needed to be filled, mostly in rural areas. Rural counties rarely are able to offer inducements to teachers, and they often cannot provide the perks that are available in counties with a larger tax base. Aiken, which is considered a well-financed district, offers a $1,000 signing bonus to special education teachers.
"We've gone from a problem to a crisis," said Norma Settlemyre of the Center for Teacher Recruitment.
And in some school districts, although not in Aiken County, substitutes are even harder to come by. Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, told Newsweek magazine, "We've lost not only our pitchers, but also our relief pitchers and the entire bench."
And the problem's likely to get worse.
The U.S. Department of Education predicts that the nation will need more than a million new teachers by 2010 - nearly half the work force of 2.6 million already employed in elementary and secondary education.
Many of them will replace veterans, now in their 40s and 50s, who are expected to retire within the decade. In South Carolina alone, nearly 12,000 teachers will probably retire at the end of the year. That's about 25 percent of the teachers in the Palmetto State, according to the Center for Teacher Recruitment. Added to the hiring horrors is the demand for smaller classes, which means even more teaching positions will need filling.
Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people are graduating with degrees in education, Mrs. Settlemyre said.
"Why would they? Teachers do not get any support. They just get a lot of grief," said Rebecca Koelker, principal of Greendale Elementary School in New Ellenton. "They are asked to do more and more for a lot less money than they deserve."
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.
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