DIETERICH — Members of the Effingham County school boards met for the second time to discuss the teacher shortage in rural schools.
At the entity’s previous meeting, the school board members spoke about some of their district’s own struggle finding teachers to fill open positions. Altamont School Board President Shelly Kuhns said at that October meeting that her school district is having difficulty finding Spanish and agriculture teachers.
David Ardrey with the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools spelled out the scope of the downstate issue of lack of teachers.
“I want you to understand a little bit about rural Illinois. There’s a political belief that rural schools and districts and issues are a downstate problem. That might have been true until you move the line from I-80 south and call that downstate, which is what the policy makers have done,” Ardrey said.
Ardrey said he oversees 500 rural districts in downstate Illinois. He said the teacher shortage will ultimately fall to these rural schools, including the Altamont, Beecher City, Dieterich, Effingham and Teutopolis districts, because it is difficult to get teachers to stay in those rural communities.
Ardrey said often, young teachers are driven out of rural communities by more opportunities and better pay in urban areas. He added that these opportunities and higher salaries are typically in the north near or in Chicago.
Ardrey praised the school board members on their collaborative idea behind the meeting of the school boards. He said if rural schools continue this kind of collaboration, governmental talks of school consolidations will cease.
“We all know that ultimately the conversation around consolidation is where the government entities would like to go. They consider you a unit of government now as opposed to a school board or a district. That is a code word for we’d like to make you smaller and combine you and consolidate you,” Ardrey said. “The more that you can work together and collaborate, the less that conversation about consolidation will come up because what we start to do is share services and share opportunities and share resources.”
The group also heard from Eastern Illinois University education program dean Dr. Doug Bower and director of rural school initiatives Dr. Brian Reid regarding what the university is doing to bring teachers to rural areas.
Bower said of the 220 students currently in the teacher education program at EIU, over 60 percent of them are dedicated to returning to their own rural communities to teach. He said the teacher education program has turned a focus on what he called “growing your own” teachers.
“We want to focus on growing your own because we know if your teacher comes to you from your own community, they’re going to stay in your community,” Bower said.
To do this, EIU’s teaching program utilizes the Illinois Grow Your Own Teachers Grant through which the program gives students an opportunity to be in an off-campus cohort that targets rural communities. The grant also allows the teaching program to develop a pipeline of teachers through the High School Rural Teacher Corps, Community College and EIU Rural Teacher Corps and the New Teacher Rural Corps.
Eastern is also providing scholarships specifically for teachers returning to rural areas to teach. Bower said Eastern has also started an accelerated baccalaureate program in which college seniors or mid-career changing adults can take summer courses, do a year-long internship with a rural school and receive their teaching license the following summer.
Bower said the long term solution to the teacher shortage is getting those college-aged students prepared and willing to teach for many years in small communities.
“We need to figure out how do we get our 18- to 21-year-olds to commit their life to teaching because that’s the long term solution to the problem,” Bower said.
Reid said to keep those college-aged students interested in rural teaching, communities need to change the negative narrative around teaching. He said instead, communities should encourage students in high school that education is a worthwhile field to get into.
Reid said he’s found the best way to create a more positive narrative around teaching is to connect young teachers with potential teachers so that they can relate more to the young people. He said this is done at Eastern through the Rural Teacher Corps.
Dieterich School Board secretary Charity Bohnhoff suggested that higher education teaching programs even start encouraging elementary school-aged children to enter into the teaching field.
In other matters, the group:
• Heard from Dieterich Unit 30 Superintendent Cary Jackson that the Effingham Regional Career Academy is on track for completion by 2023.
• Discussed potential shared services such as buses and a shared curriculum director.
• Heard from OPAA! Food Management Regional Director Nick Pace about OPAA!’s lunch program at Dieterich schools and other area schools. OPAA! provides fresh fruit and vegetables and more for students in schools they service.
• Set the date for the next meeting for 6 p.m. on March 26 at the Altamont school board meeting room.
Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.