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St. Louis schools combat teacher shortage with bonuses, pay raises

Schools around the country are grappling with shortages of what many consider to be one of the most important jobs out there: teachers.

ST. LOUIS — Like so many schools across Missouri and across the country, Patrick Henry Elementary in Carr Square is dealing with a crisis: a shortage of teachers. It’s part of St. Louis Public Schools, a district struggling to fill 113 teaching jobs, or about 7% of its staff. 

Sherri Bailey is part of the solution. 

“The teach residency program allows us to be in the classroom and take college courses at the same time," said Sherri Bailey, a teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary.

She’s enrolled in a new program that’s allowed her to expand her skills as a substitute teacher to become a full-time teacher for kids with special needs. 

“I was sort of backfilling teacher vacancies as they were absent," she said. “Now I'm able to lead and not just follow. I can create a lesson plan. I can bring that energy to the classroom.”

"Do you get paid more now?" asked the I-Team's Paula Vasan.

“Yes, I do. And that's the best part of it all," she said. 

More pay is one way state officials are working to address recruitment and retention challenges that have led to thousands of open teaching positions. The biggest shortfalls are in elementary and special education. 

“It's a supply and demand issue. We don't have enough of what we need," said Dr. Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He’s seen enrollment in teacher education programs drop by about 25% over the past six years. It’s a drop he believes is likely spurred by the fact Missouri ranks last among all states in the U.S. on minimum starting teacher salaries. 

In Missouri, that minimum is $25,000 annually. Many teachers in the St. Louis area often make significantly more than that. Rural areas, he says, struggle the most.

“So that means less people are preparing to be teachers," he said.

State education officials are working to reverse that troubling trend. Just last year they created teachmo.org, a new website to make applying to become a teacher easier. They’ve invested about $55 million in teacher recruitment and retention grants, which allow school leaders to provide stipends for extra work or expand programs to recruit students and support staff into the teaching profession. New grants have also boosted teacher pay in areas of the state where annual salaries are lower than $38,000.

“I think it's a very good start. It's a very good start, yes," said Bailey. 

This St. Louis native calls those steps critical in allowing her to pursue a profession she’s always dreamed of. 

“What's the best part of being a teacher?” asked Vasan.

“I feel like I am making a difference. They're learning. They're engaged and their parents are engaged as well," she said. 

The State Board of Education recently formed a commission of educators with a unified goal: getting more people to become teachers, and stay teachers. In October, leaders from that commission will outline recommendations to the state. 

A spokesperson with St. Louis Public Schools says the district has begun bumping pay up as a way to attract more teachers and try to solve the problem.  The district did an 8% pay raise in July across the board. A spokesperson says they are also offering $10,000 in retention bonuses over the next three years to get people to stay. You can apply for jobs with St. Louis Public Schools here: www.slps.org/jobs

To combat teacher shortages in the state, the State Board of Education has made teacher recruitment and retention one of their legislative priorities and has called for and convened a Blue Ribbon Commission on Teacher Recruitment and Retention to develop specific and measurable strategies to address teacher recruitment and retention challenges in Missouri. 

The Commission recently conducted a survey and public hearing to invite educators to provide feedback on specific policy and practice shifts to improve the educator experience. Based on this feedback, the Blue Ribbon Commission will provide a set of recommendations to the State Board of Education in early October. 

In addition, the state has allocated nearly $55 million in funding for recruitment and retention grants for school districts and charter schools and recruitment grants for community colleges and educator preparation programs. The state legislature has approved, and the Governor has signed into law, state statutes and allocations to support Teacher Baseline Salary Grants and Career Ladder.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education say these actions make possible additional pay for nearly every teacher in our state. 

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