ELIZABETHTOWN — Two summers ago, Hardin County Schools Superintendent Andy Edmondson was out for lunch when he bumped into Grace Vaughn, a Hardin County graduate who was home from Murray State University, waiting tables over break.
She didn’t recognize him, but he recognized her.
“He asked me about softball at Murray, how everything was going,” Vaughn remembers. “I told him I was going into elementary education, and he asked me to come in the next week and talk to him about working here when I graduated.”
Since that conversation, Edmondson has checked in with Vaughn every semester, she said, asking about her career goals and sharing job opportunities at the school where she grew up.
On Tuesday, Vaughn began her first day as a fourth grade teacher at Hardin County Elementary School, almost immediately after finishing her teacher training.
“We’re excited about having a young lady with such a tremendous work ethic come back to our kids,” Edmondson said. “It’s going to pay dividends now and far into the future.”
And Vaughn isn’t Edmondson’s only recruiting target. He keeps tabs on a handful of other Hardin County products who are now in teacher preparation programs at Midwestern universities.
One young man is interested in drivers’ ed, health and physical education. Another young woman hopes to enter special education. Both are high-need areas at Hardin County and across the state.
“I played college football, and it’s a little recruiting,” Edmondson said, “letting people know they’re loved and appreciated, and the impact they could have on our schools.”
In his three years at Hardin County, Edmondson has lost at least a half dozen teachers to larger, better paying school districts, he told the Southern. Finding teachers who appreciate rural Hardin County, and want to stick around, is key.
“The homegrown kids are going to be a big part of the solution. Without them I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Edmondson said. “The shortage is statewide and financially you can’t compete with other schools. I can’t compete with Marion and Harrisburg.”
In the last decade, the U.S. has moved from a teacher surplus to a major shortage, and researchers project the country will likely be about 200,000 teachers short by 2025.
In Illinois, the period 2010 to 2016 saw a 53% decline in graduates from teacher preparation programs, outpacing even the national downturn among young people, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Schools face stiff competition for the graduates that remain, and studies show that low-income, low salary schools like Hardin County are at a pronounced competitive disadvantage.
At Hardin County, the starting salary is $36,161 this year. A bachelor’s degree-holding teacher starting at Carterville CUSD 5 made $44,866 in 2018, over $8,000 more.
Vaughn knows she’s likely taking a pay cut by choosing Hardin County. But she’s got bigger reasons to come back home.
She had an epiphany her junior year of high school at the funeral of Tammy Conn, a close family friend and her former third-grade teacher.
“Seeing everyone who attended her services made me realize it’s more important to make an impact on people than to choose a job for the money,” she said. “I believe that the pay I’m going to be getting is plenty for me to live comfortably and have the life I want to.”
Meanwhile, Vaughn is returning to a vibrant life in her hometown: Living on the same road as her parents, her uncles and cousins.
Vaughn and her boyfriend live in a house that was once her grandmother’s, and the couple are remodeling it to their tastes. He hopes to volunteer coaching baseball in his free time, and she plans to help out with the cheer and softball teams at her school.
“We’re all at my grandparents' house constantly,” she said. “I love being among my family.”
Vaughn is also drawn to the atmosphere of her hometown school.
After student-teaching at schools in Kentucky with average class sizes of about 30 students, coming back to Hardin County was “a breath of fresh air,” she said.
She’ll have just 20 students in her class, plus the support of a trained special ed teacher who will take several of her students each day for math and reading. She’ll get the opportunity to co-teach with other Hardin County educators, allowing her time to do small group and one-on-one reading practice with her students.
“I feel relaxed there,” she said. “I love what they’re doing.”
Vaughn is also benefiting from the mentorship of Brenda Butts, a retired Hardin County teacher.
Edmonson brought Butts back on staff to cover Vaughn’s classroom for the first half of the school year, as she finished her student teaching and finalized her certifications.
Butts will remain with Vaughn for several more weeks, to help her make the transition to running her own classroom.
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“For Ms. Butts to come out of retirement and do this for me, I feel so grateful,” Vaughn said. “It’s great to start out with people I know and am comfortable with.”
In the next county north, leaders at Gallatin County CUSD 7 arranged an identical partnership for one of their homegrown products this year, allowing Hannah Doerr to gradually take over her second grade classroom.
It’s the kind of special benefit that a small school can offer, Edmondson said.
“It may not be facilities or finances, but it’s community,” Edmondson said. “Everyone’s known and feels cared about. It’s a unique sense of community and people here are aware of it.”
“We’re all trying to foster an environment where our students who graduate go on to get a teaching license,” agreed Jonathan Green, superintendent of Meridian CUSD 101, a small K-12 district in Mounds.
“If they love where they’re at and the culture and environment then we can keep them,” despite the salary difference, he said.
Across the country, a movement to train homegrown educators is gaining momentum, according to Professor Angela Valenzuela, director of the University of Texas Center for Education Policy, who has studied the phenomenon.
Some programs provide tuition aid to college students in exchange for a commitment to teach at an under-resourced school upon graduation. Others target teachers’ aides and parents, helping them attain their teaching certificates, then get jobs in their communities.
In urban areas, Grow Your Own programs are largely seen as a grassroots solution to racial inequality, as racial and ethnic minorities made up just 20% of U.S. public school teachers in 2015-16, but about 51% of all public school students, according to the Pew Research Center.
But urban homegrown programs focused on diversity have plenty in common with rural efforts, Valenzuela said.
“You have to tap into the motivation that people have to be there,” Valenzuela said of lower-resourced schools. “Much of this work is unfunded, but it’s a kind of a philosophy ... grassroots democracy, that locates the reform in the community, who will be the beneficiary.”
In Colorado, the Rural Teacher Fellowship offers a $10,000 stipend to students in their final year of teacher preparation in exchange for a commitment of at least two years teaching in a rural school.
Texas rolled out a GYO grant program for small and/or rural districts in the spring of 2018 that creates pipelines to teaching careers for high schoolers, paraprofessionals and career changers.
Illinois’ oldest homegrown teacher program, Grow Your Own Illinois, was founded to bring diversity to schools in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods by helping teacher’s aides become full-fledged teachers.
This year, the program is supporting about 100 future teachers in the Chicagoland area with up to $25,000 in tuition funding, plus travel and childcare assistance, mentorship, and help paying for books and tests, according to Program Director Lissette Moreno-Kuri.
Over the last two years, it has also passed along funding to the SIU Carbondale College of Education and Human Services ($346,000 in 2019) to convert Southern Illinois paraprofessionals into special education teachers.
“If we had more funding, we could continue to expand,” said Dave Ardrey, executive director of the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools. “There is tremendous interest in this region.”
Another new Illinois initiative, the "Accelerators" program by education nonprofit Golden Apple, is currently gathering its first cohort of 50 candidates interested in a career transition to teaching.
Those selected will get a $30,000 stipend for education and housing as they earn their teaching licenses on an accelerated schedule, completing their coursework and a year of student teaching within 15 months, according to Golden Apple.
In return they must commit to at least four years of teaching at an understaffed school in one of five regions: The jurisdictions of the Regional Offices of Education No. 3 (in Vandalia), No. 13 (in Mount Vernon), No. 39 (in Decatur), No. 40 (in Carlinville) and 47 (in Sterling).
“We don’t want to be an importer or exporter of talent,” said Golden Apple President Alan Mather. “Our goal is to keep these teachers in these communities.”
Edmondson is supportive of such programs, but said he believes Illinois needs to start simple with teacher retention — ensuring its universities offer cheaper teacher preparation than any neighboring state.
“When you have other school systems offering teaching programs cheaper than SIU, that’s an issue,” he said.
Studies show teachers, more than almost any other profession, show a strong preference for working near their hometowns.
But out-migration may work powerfully against that fact. As of Fall 2016, more students left Illinois for college than any other state, except New Jersey, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and data shows many college graduates settle in the area where they went to school.
Looking forward, Southern Illinois educators see a long road to overcoming the teacher shortage.
With multiple Hardin County teachers slated to retire in coming years, and fewer applicants than ever for open positions, Edmondson knows recruitment will likely be a big part of his job description for years to come.
“It’s definitely on my front burner,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”