The Road Less Taken

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Most see it as a pit stop off a quiet country road that leads to somewhere, something better.

Of course, they don't all think of it that way at first, but it happens soon enough. Teachers with good intentions, or those who have lost their way, come to Southeast Halifax High School, park their lives amid the tobacco fields and pine groves for a year or two, then resume their journeys along that long, winding stretch of asphalt. They can't stay, they say with a shake of their heads, but thanks anyway.

It's enough to make Viola Vaughan-Holland's head and heart ache. Last school year, 42 percent of the principal's teachers quit. She had 21 vacancies to fill this past fall.

"I lost all of my science teachers and all but two of my special education teachers," Vaughan-Holland says, cloaking her face in gold-rimmed sunglasses.

Not to mention a majority of the English department.

She's not sure why they quit-she's often notified by the central office of the departures after educators are gone-but she can guess. The pay is less competitive than in other places, she says, and the work just as demanding, if not more so.

Housing is limited, as much of the land is locked up with crops. Consequently, those who work at the school commute up to an hour each way. Many teachers hope to further their own educations, but because of the rural nature of the county, they find themselves again behind the wheel driving miles and miles to a college of education.

Vaughan-Holland makes do, though, hiring uncertified educators to staff her classrooms, asking substitutes to take full-time positions, and paying extensive headhunting fees to import teachers from outside North Carolina.

State data reveal that half the high school's teachers were not fully licensed during the 2001-02 school year, meaning they had earned bachelor's degrees but generally had not taken all the education courses required to be fully credentialed. Some had no academic backgrounds at all in the subjects they taught.

Forty percent had less than three years' experience in the field.

Vaughan-Holland says her staff is well-meaning and works hard, but, she adds, many teachers have yet to master the academic content or instructional strategies needed to be most effective in the classroom.

Halifax County schools Superintendent Willie Gilchrist sighs: "We have some real problems we need to address."

The woes of Vaughan-Holland and Gilchrist are a staple of conversation among school administrators throughout rural America.

The issues at Southeast Halifax High "typify districts that are high-poverty, low-income, and low-performing," says Doris Terry Williams, the director of the capacity-building program for the Rural School and Community Trust. The Washington-based nonprofit group studies hard-to-staff rural schools.

Such districts, Williams says, ultimately "have to hire teachers who can't go someplace else, or those who really, really want to be there."

"It is a perpetual cycle," she adds. "Districts can't get or keep teachers, so student performance is really low. Teachers inclined to go there are then actually discouraged from applying because of the districts' reputations.

Little Consistency

Halifax, the home of Southeast Halifax High School, is one of several tiny burgs located in the county of the same name, North Carolina's third-largest geographically. The sandy earth stretches for miles, punctuated by lush forests, prickly cotton plants, and clusters of prefabricated houses. Farm tractors amble down the two-lane country roads followed by logging trucks piled high and headed for processing.

Men and women who take teaching jobs in schools in many rural communities pick up and leave once they find opportunities elsewhere.

Poverty defines the northeastern region of the state. The unemployment rate now hangs around 12 percent, following the recent closing of a textile plant, Superintendent Gilchrist says. That was more than twice the national rate as of last fall.

Nearly 70 percent of the 724 students who attended Southeast during the 1999-2000 school year were poor enough to receive subsidized lunches from the federal government, the state reports. About 99 percent of the school population is African-American, and most students come from single-parent families.

According to teachers, a majority of teenagers here spend their time hanging out and watching television at home; no public transportation exists to shuttle them to and from school activities. A dozen or so girls enrolled at the school are pregnant.

School achievement, as defined by North Carolina's standardized-test scores, is so bad that officials deemed Southeast Halifax "low performing" during both the 2000-01 and 2001-02 school years. Only 29.7 percent of student test scores were ranked "proficient" by the state last year. Vaughan-Holland and several teachers attribute the poor scores, in part, to the staffing problems.

"At the high school level, you need consistency over a three- or four-year span," the principal says, because it takes time for teachers to learn the academic content, textbooks, and culture of a school.

Staffing the school has always been hard, Vaughn-Holland says, but as more and more teachers retire, filling a larger number of vacancies has grown exceedingly difficult. In part, fewer beginners are available to choose from, she says.

North Carolina must hire 80,000 new teachers over the next nine years, according to the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, a regional office of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. Meanwhile, colleges and universities in the Tar Heel State produce only 20 percent of the new teachers hired each year, leaving districts to import faculty recruits from other states or to steal talent from one another.

While the state's salaries for beginning teachers are second in the Southeast only to Georgia's, pay varies greatly in North Carolina. The average compensation for new teachers was $29,786 during the 2000- 01 school year, according to the American Federation of Teachers. Halifax County, however, paid only $25,500. Nearby districts trumped that considerably with signing bonuses of up to $3,000, in addition to other perks.

The 5,900-student Halifax County district just can't afford to offer generous incentives, though it supplemented salaries with up to $500 this school year only, says Gilchrist. The tax base is low, and enrollment is decreasing, he explains, just as school services are growing more expensive. Every dollar spent on teacher recruitment, he points out, means less money to buy textbooks and pencils.

Meanwhile, neighboring Virginia and South Carolina are offering tempting packages and luring away teachers who might otherwise consider Halifax County. In 2000-01, starting pay was $28,139 and $26,314, respectively, in those states, the AFT found.

Even if the district could afford financial incentives, the district's marked problems and geography would act as a deterrent, Gilchrist says.

As Southeast's principal over the past four years, Vaughan-Holland has tried all avenues to find teachers.

Her first strategy each year is to call North Carolina teacher-preparation programs, but most graduates either have the promise of a job or aren't interested in hearing from her, she says. A handful, though, hail from Halifax County and want to return to teach at their alma mater.

Mostly, Vaughan-Holland interviews applicants who aren't fully licensed and thus are more or less blackballed by other districts. Such prospective teachers often would have preferred working in other fields, but couldn't find jobs. Instead of collecting unemployment, they look for teaching jobs in Halifax County.

Vaughan-Holland also scoops up a couple of future educators who live in the area and are switching careers. In addition, she turned to Teach For America for help this school year, paying the New York City-based program a total of $2,000 to provide her with three English teachers and a physics instructor.

"I interviewed 42 people to get 15 teachers," Vaughan-Holland says. "Most came here because they didn't think they had any other choice."

‘You Can’t Work Here Forever’

It's October, a month into the new school year, and the newest crop is having doubts.

"There is no possibility I could maintain the pace we’re constantly working," says Kristopher Miller, a tousled 23-year-old who came to Southeast Halifax High School from Wisconsin through TFA.

"You're swimming so hard upstream," he says, slumping in a library chair and rumpling his black suit. The students are often unmotivated--or worse, uninterested, he says. The school has set up channels to provide aid to teachers, but the help the school gives "is a little less than you'd hoped for," according to Miller.

It is probably just a matter of time before Kenyetta S. Gadson, also 23, heads back home to South Carolina.

"This is a good place to start off, but you can't work here forever because the money isn't good," says Gadson, who shares the rent with three other teachers to stretch her paycheck. The tennis and basketball coach and English teacher has already had another offer from school officials in South Carolina. They would have paid her at least $5,000 more than what she's earning now.

"The word got out [about the offer], and my students were angry and crying and saying people always leave them," says Gadson. "Basically, that's the only reason I'm still here."

It isn't just the novices who are considering their options.

Band instructor Derrick D. Wiggs has spent the past six years building up the middle and high school band programs, but now worries that Southeast's reputation as a low-performing school will leave a black mark on his résumé.

"I am very concerned about trying to apply [elsewhere] and the stigma of having worked in two low-performing schools," the saxophone player says in a quiet voice.

Wiggs says he is proud of his accomplishments--the band has played at Disney World twice and will give a repeat performance this year--yet he worries he'll be stuck in a dead-end job with a baby to raise.

Others say they, too, are happy at Southeast, but have had trouble passing the exams necessary to obtain their permanent licenses.

Chiara J. Wallace loved teaching Algebra 2, but was reassigned to a middle school last fall after failing the state certification exam for the third time.

Such problems are common, Vaughan-Holland says. Educators who don't have full certification are often so overloaded with the demands of the job, they fail to prepare well for the tests, she says. Many teach a variety of classes--which last 90 minutes each--and volunteer to lead extracurricular activities. After the school day ends, they return home to study or drive great distances to one of the colleges to take classes themselves, as the state requires for full certification.

Even if teachers prepare for the test, some are so broke, they don't have the $100 required to pay for it, Vaughan-Holland says.

"I have," she says, "personally loaned them the money to take the test."

Seeking Solutions

Superintendent Gilchrist has served in his position for nine years and says his challenge is to think creatively about the problems that plague his district. With a lean $49 million budget, he knows his schools won't be saved by cash alone. The key, he believes, is to use what little he has to provide better working conditions and build a sense of community so that teachers feel supported and enjoy their jobs.

Three years ago, administrators here dug deep to come up with stipends to pay retired teachers to work as mentors, Gilchrist says. Each mentor observes at least five newcomers twice a week and dispenses tailored advice. Additionally, rookies receive mentors through the state.

The district provided a one-time salary stipend of $500 this school year, the superintendent says. "I had new teachers coming in here who didn't have money for food or rent," Gilchrist says. "I had no choice."

Vaughan-Holland, for her part, started weekly tutorial sessions this school year at Southeast Halifax. Newbies observe more experienced educators teach minilessons weekly, then discuss strategies with them. In addition, the principal is out in the classrooms daily to help educators.

New teachers get another dose of professional development at monthly Saturday meetings. There, administrators who act as school consultants help teachers work through their concerns.

"The only other thing we can do," Gilchrist says, visibly frustrated, "is be a good ear for them and work through the difficulties."

That may not be enough, though, for teachers like 22-year-old Nicolette Bond, who is struggling to teach 17 "repeaters" 9th grade English. Her class happens to be all-male, and keeping order is a challenge.

"I've been trying everything," Bond says, her hands folded atop a student desk, "But I only get in about a half hour of instruction."

Vol. 22, Issue 17, Page 25-27

Published in Print: January 9, 2003, as The Road Less Taken
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