When the new school year gets underway Monday, the Beaufort County School District will have nearly 250 new teachers throughout its halls and classrooms.
But they aren't enough.
Some students will be taught by substitutes when they return to classes instead of permanent teachers, district officials say.
As of Friday, the district had about 35 vacancies throughout its 31 schools, according to head of human resources Alice Walton. The majority are classroom teaching positions, she said, though some are other staff, such as guidance counselors or media specialists.
Superintendent Jeff Moss said that number should be smaller.
"In terms of the number of vacancies, I believe we have fewer this year than the previous year," he said. "But in my mind, it is still too way high."
Moss said it's rare for districts to begin the year completely staffed, but Beaufort County has a pattern of too many open spots come August, he said. And those vacancies can't help but be felt in the classroom.
EFFECTS ON CLASSES
When the school district begins the year with a teaching spot unfilled, it must place a substitute in that classroom for the time being, Walton said.
The district works to find substitutes familiar with the subject and grade level they will be teaching, often calling on retired teachers, in hopes of minimizing the effect on students and not having them fall behind in the first couple weeks of school.
But those subs still might not be as well-versed in their school's curricula or in the district's various materials and equipment, Walton said.
"Of course, minimizing the negative effects is something that is always on the top of our list when looking at the classroom vacancies," Walton said. "We would not like to see any position go unfilled for any longer than two weeks in to the school year."
That's because the more time spent without a permanent teacher, the greater the chances for a disruption when that teacher eventually transitions into the classroom, school board member Jim Beckert said.
Although teaching vacancies are felt most directly in the classroom, other open spots -- such as guidance counselors, instructional coaches and media specialists -- are also crucial for teacher support.
"This certainly is something that has to be addressed," Beckert said. "From the continuity standpoint and making sure we have that effective teacher with effective practices in the classroom, this is concerning."
HOW THE PROBLEM DEVELOPED
Vacancies have been a problem in the district for many years, Walton said.
"Our biggest issue is that we hire teachers, bring them down here and go through the orientation," she said, "and then they decide that they don't want to be this far from home or this is too much of a change, and that has set us back."
The district would have about 15 fewer vacancies if teachers who were hired over the summer hadn't changed their minds, Walton said.
Another contributing factor, Moss said, is the high turnover rates in some schools, meaning employees are being hired but not staying long.
"Some of our schools have a more than 40 percent turnover every year," he said. "We cannot sustain student growth if teachers are continuing to change and leave schools."
Moss said the area's high cost of living and lack of social opportunties for younger teachers make it difficult for them to plant roots here.
Walton said the district does not have quite as many vacancies this year compared with recent years, but the improvements are minor.
"I would like to say this situation has gotten much better over the years, but it hasn't," she said. "It has gotten better, but not much."
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The district continues to ramp up its recruitment efforts, Walton said.
A study underway should be completed this fall to help the district identify what universities and programs produce the teachers who have been most successful in Beaufort County, said Beckert, who co-chairs the board's Human Resources Committee.
The district will then be able to -- and must -- begin recruiting at those schools earlier in the year, he said.
"I think this starts by understanding as soon as possible who will be retiring and not coming back next year, so we can start those recruiting efforts for next year right now," Beckert said. "If the district can develop a recruiting program along that line, I think it would improve our efforts down the road, and we will be more successful and have less vacancies."
As part of that recruitment, the district is working on incentives to attract teachers and make them want to stay, Moss said. Some of those incentives might be related to pay or help with housing.
Beaufort County also is looking to forge partnerships where possible, such as with the Visiting International Faculty organization. The group will staff eight foreign-language positions in the district this school year, Walton said.
The district has often struggled to fill those vacancies, she said.
"There is still a lot of work to do," Walton said. "But we are turning every rock over to see what is out there in terms of resources for filling our positions."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.
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