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Classrooms in Crisis
S.C. teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. Here's why and how it can be fixed.
She is 14 years into her education career, has a master’s degree and still needs to work a second job waiting tables. She’s at one of Hilton Head Island’s busiest restaurant, Skull Creek Boathouse, almost every Saturday night, scribbling down orders, serving seafood platters and wiping up spills.
Bluffton High School guidance counselor Kelly Homan, 45, says she chose this life and is happy with her decisions.
The percentage of teachers leaving Beaufort County classrooms has hovered around 12 percent for the past five years, but other certified staff — including guidance counselors, like Homan — are leaving at a rate unseen since the 2009-10 school year.
Beaufort County School District’s certified staff turnover rate has increased about 6.5 percentage points from 12 percent in 2012-13 to 18.65 percent in 2016-17, according to a review of the district’s annual human resources reports.
Certified staff is made up mostly of classroom teachers, but includes some other school-based employees such as media specialists, literacy teachers, numeracy coaches and guidance counselors.
The district's chief administrative and human resources officer, Alice Walton, said the nonclassroom teachers considered certified staff can be difficult positions to fill because of additional certification requirements. For example, a literacy coach must meet guidelines over and above an elementary teacher.
"We don’t have a definitive explanation for why the percentages for certified staff have been edging up more so than for classroom teachers generally," district spokesman Jim Foster wrote in an email Friday.
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Homan spent a year and a half in graduate school to earn her master’s degree in K-12 guidance. The day after graduation, she moved to Bluffton to be near her parents, who had retired to the Lowcountry.
Bluffton High’s first day in 2004, when the school opened, was Homan’s first day as well. She was one of three guidance counselors in the school’s first year and helped the school heal in the wake of a car wreck that killed two Bluffton High students and one H.E. McCracken Middle School student one spring Saturday evening.
Homan said she remembers meeting both high school students in her office on the Friday afternoon before the tragedy.
Her own experience — when, at 13, her best friends were killed by a drunk driver — and not having someone support her at school in the aftermath is why she became a guidance counselor.
But doing so in Beaufort County means she must work a second job to make ends meet.
Educators with second jobs are surprisingly common across the state.
That's bad news for all South Carolinians, say teacher advocates, noting that educators have the all-important task of educating the state's future citizenry and workforce.
Multiple jobs means teachers' classroom performance can suffer.
"What's lost is you have no balance between work and life, and that creates burnout," said Bernadette Hampton, president of the S.C. Education Association., a teachers' advocacy group "What's lost is your ability to do extra research and plan. ... What's lost is your ability to keep parents abreast of the progress or challenges that your kids may have in your classes and time with your own family."
With more than a decade of experience under her belt and a graduate degree, Homan earns less than $55,000 annually from her job as a guidance counselor.
While she does not have children to support, she is single and still paying off graduate school loans 14 years later. She said her last true vacation was to the Grand Canyon in 2012.
Homan works at the restaurant about 30 hours a week in the summers. During the school year, she says she works one weekend shift, sometimes two, if there’s a big bill coming in.
A weekend shift can pull in $400, she said. And spending spring break at the restaurant is more lucrative than her bi-weekly paycheck from school.
“If I didn’t have Boathouse, I wouldn’t be able to make it here,” Homan said.
She's waited tables at the restaurant for eight years. Before Boathouse, it was Crazy Crab.
High school students, many working their first job, work alongside Homan at Boathouse, bussing tables and cleaning dishes. Some are her Bluffton High students.
“I’ve helped get students jobs there,” she said. ‘They're not allowed to call me Ms. Homan at the restaurant. It’s a Boathouse rule.”
Others attend Hilton Head Island High and May River High.
If there’s a respite in the diners’ demands, sometimes the student workers pose questions to her about college applications or course scheduling. She knows guidance counselors at those schools would be just as helpful to the kids, but she’ll email the students links to information they’re seeking anyway.
Homan does not blame the district, instead pointing to the state’s historic underfunding of education and the lack of a union as the problems.
She sees her two brothers, both living in New York and both working in education, earning double what she does.
Asked if she’d move her career up to New York, Homan said, “Would I consider it? I’ve considered it every year for the last 10 years. But Bluffton High gave me my opportunity. I’m working with families going on 10 years now. I wouldn’t give that up for the world. Bluffton is my home. Bluffton is the community that I love."