BY SHELBY NIEHAUS
As any principal or superintendent can tell you, Illinois needs more teachers. According to data supplied by an Illinois State Board of Education unfilled position map, the state had 1,985 unfilled teaching positions as of October 1, 2019, and 4,831 unfilled positions in all districts when empty paraprofessional, support personnel, administrative staff, and other licensed staff positions are considered. The problem is state-wide—only about 11 counties, scattered across the state, reported to vacancies to be listed on ISBE’s map. Fayette county has five. Nearby, Effingham lists five more, Bond one, and Montgomery two. Total, the Regional Office of Education #3’s counties have 21 vacant positions, 15 of those teaching.
Golden Apple, an Illinois organization that works to “inspire, develop, and support teacher and school leader excellence… especially in schools-of-need,” is launching its Accelerators program alongside partners at Regional Offices of Education 3, 13, 39, 40, and 47, and higher education partners Eastern Illinois University and Blackburn College. The Accelerators program will secure 50 candidates, college seniors or bachelor’s degree-holding career changers, who will commit to four years of teaching in southern, central, or western Illinois districts; these Accelerators will receive a $30,000 stipend to be used for coursework or housing, teaching licensure within 15 months, one year of residency and training at a partner school district, job placement at a partner district, and mentoring support during their first year teaching. See [PAGE] for more information about the program.
The St. Elmo Banner spoke to Alan Mather, president of Golden Apple, on the morning of Jan. 30 about the teacher shortage, what it looks like in rural communities across Illinois, and how the new Golden Apple Accelerators program could help here in Fayette county.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
On the Teacher Shortage
Q: So, as for the teaching shortage—which is affecting multiple states—when did it really start affecting Illinois?
MATHER: I can’t give you when the decline began, but I know that it’s accelerating. So you think about how there were 1,400 vacancies at the start of last year and [over] 1,800 at the start of this year… that’s a pretty dramatic increase.
Q: In your own experience, what areas is the shortage worst in?
MATHER: Special education, bilingual [education], STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas, all of those were pretty clear. When I first came to Golden Apple and kind of did a tour around the state, I was actually surprised to hear, especially in some rural communities… high school English teachers are hard to find; second grade teachers are hard to find. And yes, there are some that are more acute… but the shortages, especially in some communities, are even much more dramatic.
We know that rural communities are hit particularly hard, as are some of the toughest urban communities. So there is some very similar effort to staff those most difficult or most underfunded schools. […] Especially in underfunded schools, especially in the Tier I schools, they often lose teachers because of poaching from wealthier districts in wealthier communities.
Q: Have you noticed any kind of difference in what the shortage looks like now as opposed to what it looked like when Golden Apple first started to address it?
MATHER: Golden Apple started the Scholars program 32 years ago, and at that time there were 15 young people… who were brought in to become teachers in schools of need. At that time, this was solely an effort to diversify the teaching profession. While that is still a priority, because that’s another shortage area, the growth that we have seen in the Scholars program… to 263 Scholars this last year, is really because the teacher shortage has become so dramatic, and we need to address it at a much higher level.
Q: Statewide, as far as rural schools go, what are the most acute problems that you’re seeing during the teacher shortage?
MATHER: During the budget crisis, that 18 months without a budget… particularly in rural districts, schools have had to close programs and positions they used to have, from foreign language or world language instruction to fine arts programs—choir, band. Even though EVS—evidence-based funding—has come in, and districts may be able to open those positions again, they don’t have the teachers to fill those positions, because they’ve lost them already. We not only have those problems in rural communities staffing those hard-to-staff areas, but also kind of backfilling those areas that used to be in the schools and have since been lost.
Q: Are we also having shortages on particular kinds of support staff, particularly the ones that are directly attached to instructional staff?
MATHER: Yes, there are also shortages of support staff in those areas of need. [However], we are not, as a foundation, preparing support staff… we’re preparing teachers.
About the Accelerators
Q: How did Golden Apple and [Regional Offices of Education 3, 13, 39, 40, and 47] get connected in the first place [to start the Accelerators program]?
MATHER: The person who was at that time was the president of the Regional Superintendents asked me to come to Springfield to speak to all the Regional Superintendents. So I went to Springfield and had a talk in front of all of them and said “we are looking for districts… in central, southern, and western Illinois who have teacher shortages and have a number of Tier I schools, and if you would like to partner with us, raise your hands.” And these are the ones who raised their hands. Kind of the simplest explanation.
Q: The simplest explanation, but it’s pretty heartening to see that they took an initiative.
MATHER: Yeah, they did take the initiative. […] Two of the people I met with early on were superintendents in [ROE] 3 and 13. It was Chuck Lane in 13, and Jennifer Garrison in 3, and both of them were huge in helping to connect me to others and to amplify this message in that part of the state.
Q: As for the Accelerators program, were you the one behind the design of it?
MATHER: I was going around the state to talk more about the Scholars program, and knowing that we wanted to get more people from southern, central, and western Illinois to join the Scholars program, I would go talk to superintendents. And they would all say “oh, that’s great, but we have a problem right now that we need to solve.” When you’re taking someone as a senior in high school and you have to wait four or five years for them to enter the profession… we can’t wait that long.
[…] We reached out to a couple different groups. I guess the idea really came from talking to superintendents around, but building the program required a lot of support from those who are doing the work [the Academy for Urban School Leadership and the National Center for Teacher Residency]. [I] talked to a lot of institutions of higher education, lot of colleges of education about this work, and… Blackburn and eastern Illinois were just really forward-thinking about how they could do this.
Q: Eastern has a hand in the Golden Apple Scholars program, correct?
MATHER: Yeah. Well, we have scholars in I think 48 colleges and universities in Illinois. But yes, they have a fair number of Scholars. One of our larger programs.
Q: What has Eastern been doing with the Accelerators program?
MATHER: All of the Accelerators who we select will either enroll in Eastern or at Blackburn. [Eastern has] kind of a similar program also, the Accelerated Teacher Licensure program… and so these are going to work together.
[…] [At Eastern,] the only kind of really big requirements are online—in person is going to be in the summer, this coming summer, but then most of the coursework is going to be offered online. I can’t tell you how difficult it is sometimes to work with colleges of education and how Eastern was willing to say “we’re going to figure out a new way to make this work.” They were so forward-thinking in this and how they could kind of couple… the Golden Apple Accelerators with their ATL program.
Q: Off the top of your head, do you know where placements possible in ROE3’s area would be?
MATHER: So the way the process is going to work is—some of this is going to be on the back end based on the people who are selected. So as of today we have 207 applicants for the Golden Apple Accelerators, and we anticipate there will be more, but we’ve got to select just 50 of them for this first year. Many of those who are applying right now are paraprofessionals in their schools. […] We know those people who are special education classroom assistants and have bachelors degrees now are certainly there because they want to be teachers in the school and the districts are partnering with us because they want those people to be teachers in the schools.
There are others who are not necessarily connected to the schools who are from similar communities, so from there we‘re going to look at the district’s who say they want to partner, what the vacancies are, and try to do a match. So much of this is really predicated on what the vacancies are, where the people live, and trying to not uproot them from their communities to another community, but to keep them in the community where they are.
This year is the placement. The following year they are teachers of record. So they are just placed as, in effect, student teachers for a year in classrooms for the fall of 2020. The fall of 2021 they will be teachers of record.
The Future of the Program
Q: In an ideal situation, what will the Accelerators program graduates bring to Illinois schools?
MATHER: There are a few parts to that. One is we are aligning our expectations as the Golden Apple Foundation with the universities’ curriculum and finding out where we can supplement but one of the things that Golden Apple does is… we’re supplemental to what happens in the higher ed space, in their colleges of education. So we have explicit core competencies we teach and we are looking for Accelerators who have some elements of those we can continue to develop.
We think that they are going to provide not only the sort of mindset that we think teachers need to have to really move student learning but also… they bring an answer to the question that students always ask: “Why do I need to know this?” And there is a real-world application that career-changers often bring to teaching. It’s exciting.
Q: If the Accelerators program goes as well as I’m sure you hope it will, what is going to be next after that?
MATHER: What’s going to be next is the growth of the program. …The other thing I should mention about the Accelerators program: we do mentor our scholars in their first two years of teaching. Accelerators, in their first two years being teachers of record, will receive mentoring from the state-certified evaluators. They will not be evaluating, but that just proves that they know what the instructional best practices are and can support what the school wants to see out of those teachers as well.
[…] Currently, all the Golden Apple Mentors have been part of the Golden Apple community. They are either Fellows, those award-winning teachers who have gone through the process to become state-certified evaluators, or they are what we call Completed Scholars, so they are those who have fulfilled their mission to teach in a school of need for five or more years. Some of them are retired teachers, so we consider them all to be either master teachers or administrators who have gone through this process.
Q: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you?
MATHER: I was going to make certain we highlighted the stipend that goes to the Accelerators, the $30,000 stipend, which in effect pays for their teacher licensure. This is an investment from our state, so it’s the leadership of the state legislature and the governor’s office to address the teacher shortage that I think cannot be underplayed.