Greener Pastures

Rural districts usually have a tough time attracting new teachers. But one in North Carolina is defying the odds.

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Stand in front of Roanoke Rapids High School, and you can’t help but be impressed with the 1921 building’s grand, castlelike architecture. The edifice was erected by the same textile barons who once employed almost everybody in Roanoke Rapids, a town of about 17,000 souls in an isolated corner of northeastern North Carolina.

But look down the street, and you’ll see an old textile mill reduced to a pile of rubble. A few blocks away, another red-brick factory stands abandoned. The town proper—a few single-level storefronts still doing business, but many more vacant—quickly peters out into a scattering of small houses, flat country roads, and fields. And that’s the problem: In the fierce competition to hire good new teachers, with bigger, more cosmopolitan districts dangling more social amenities and higher salaries before job candidates than rural districts can hope to match, how do you attract talented young teachers to work there and stay there?

Roanoke Rapids superintendent John Parker
Roanoke Rapids superintendent John Parker has reduced his rural district's teacher-turnover rate by half in five years.
—David Kidd

Well, says Roanoke Rapids Graded School District superintendent John Parker, you sell what you’ve got. Although he still calls teacher recruitment and retention his “Number 1 challenge,” Parker’s success in those areas has attracted the attention of rural districts around the region. Until recently, Roanoke Rapids had a 13 percent faculty turnover rate—not unusual among rural schools. But five years ago, something began to change. Parker—then the assistant superintendent—began to aggressively sell young teachers and new college grads on what his 3,000-student district did have: a close-knit community, low housing costs, an intense focus on professional development, and a relatively safe haven from the teach-to-the-test mania obsessing many more-populated districts. Since then, the district’s turnover rate has been cut by half.

Dressed in a casual turtleneck and sitting at ease in his modestly furnished district office, Parker, a trim, relaxed man in his 50s, makes it sound easy: When recruiting would-be teachers, admit what your district lacks, but play up its strengths. “We want to be honest with them up front,” he says in a gentle Southern drawl, referring to the utter lack of, say, Michelin-starred restaurants or designer martini bars amid the area’s tobacco and peanut fields. But, he points out, there’s something to be said for “the laid-back lifestyle of a small community where you know your neighbors,” and he isn’t too shy to tell teaching candidates about it.

A lot of rural districts would dearly love to duplicate Parker’s success. High teacher-retirement and attrition rates combined with a growing population of immigrant children and class-size reduction mandates have created an acute need for new teachers everywhere. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that the country needs about 200,000 new teachers per year, a level of demand expected to last through the decade. With so many jobs available, teachers can pick where they want to work. And many young teachers simply don’t want to work in rural areas.

With so many jobs available, teachers can pick where they want to work. And many young teachers simply don’t want to work in rural areas.

“The city lights, for most young people, are blazing too brightly,” says Victoria Robinson, a University of Northern Iowa assistant professor of education who has researched rural-school recruiting. In overwhelmingly countrified Iowa, for example, larger districts such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids can usually take the pick of ed schools’ litters because young teachers tend to gravitate toward more densely settled areas. That often leaves rural districts scrambling to fill positions.

Robinson says social isolation and the lack of leisure activities are typically the biggest obstacles rural districts face in attracting and keeping teachers. That’s definitely an issue in Roanoke Rapids, where there aren’t many other young people with whom new teachers could paint the town, even if there were a town to paint. According to the 2000 census, only about 5 percent of the population is between 20 and 24—the ages of many teachers just out of college. Nor are there many places for young adults to congregate and socialize besides the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Wendy’s out by the interstate. But there are benefits to teaching in Roanoke Rapids, and many of them, like the district’s superintendent himself, are often found in the classroom.

As the high school’s sixth-period bell rings, 15 students lug their backpacks into Wayne Williams’ advanced placement calculus class. “Boy, if you were not here yesterday, you missed a fine quiz,” he tells them, his black shirt and dark hair standing out vividly against the whiteboard behind him. The bespectacled 32-year-old’s voice is soft, but his decidedly Northern accent stands out in the classroom. Gesturing at a transparency on an overhead projector, the upstate-New York native works through a formula to find an average value as the students attentively scribble in their notebooks. With his highly sought-after secondary math certification and his comfort with both the subject and his students, Williams is the sort of educator who could teach anywhere. So what’s he doing in Roanoke Rapids?

Faculty support and development, replies Williams, who admits he suffered some initial culture shock but says he’s settled in during his two years in this district and the nine he spent teaching in a neighboring county before that. Besides, he adds, where else would he have the opportunity to co-teach a class with his superintendent? Parker, who was a science educator in a neighboring county before coming to Roanoke Rapids as an assistant superintendent eight years ago, clearly relishes the opportunity, dropping in and co-teaching whenever his schedule allows.

“It just sends so many positive messages,” Williams says. “It sends a message of being valued. It sends a message about the importance of teaching.”

When Parker’s not in the classroom, he stresses the district’s commitment to professional development in other ways. Every teacher writes an individual growth plan, in which he or she outlines needed or wanted training, and the district pays much of the freight on achieving those goals. Parker also encourages his teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and 13 percent now are. Less than 1 percent of American teachers are nationally certified.

That attention to professional development also drew 26-year-old Carla Ledford to Roanoke Rapids—or, rather, drew her back. “J.D., you’re alive!” she exclaims half-seriously to a student returning from an illness. In a rapid-fire version of the local accent, she gives each of her other Chaloner Middle School 8th graders similarly personal welcomes. Despite being seven months pregnant, Ledford is a bundle of energy as class begins, moving around the classroom as students play math games such as 24 and Krypto. It’s an unseasonably warm, wet day for January, and Ledford has to raise her voice to be heard over the hum of the air conditioner. She grew up in Roanoke Rapids but says she never pictured herself moving back to teach. She majored in recreation therapy at UNC-Chapel Hill, but she had trouble finding a job after graduating in 2001.

Teacher Carla Ledford checks in with a student.
Carla Ledford checks in with one of her Chaloner Middle School 8th graders. Ledford was attracted by the district's extensive professional development offerings.
—David Kidd

Ledford’s mother, a longtime Roanoke Rapids teacher, ultimately persuaded her to come back and give the profession a try. She never expected to stick with it, says Ledford, who’s in her first year with the district, but she now plans to make it a career. “It’s amazing; I’ve never seen a school system that spends as much time thinking about professional development,” she says. Although she’s still completing her certification, the district has already paid her way to a state math conference and a Duke University project for science teachers, as well as for the after-school course she’s taking on teaching academically gifted students.

Ledford was equally attracted by Parker’s de-emphasis on standardized testing, evinced by an e-mail he sent in spring 2004 about the upcoming statewide end-of-grade exams. Many North Carolina schools spend an entire month prepping for the high-stakes tests, on which schools are graded and teachers’ bonuses are based, but Parker’s note simply told his charges to relax—he knew they’d done a great job. “Testing is definitely just one small piece [of a student’s education],” Ledford says. “That’s one thing that drew me here.”

Not that the district’s scores are anything to be ashamed of: 79 percent of all Roanoke Rapids students scored at or above reading and math grade levels in 2003-04, a higher percentage than in neighboring districts. In an era when teaching to the test is almost an instructional axiom, prioritizing learning ahead of assessment wins a lot of hearts and minds—and a lot of teacher recruits, as it turns out.

“We think, in this day and age, that sets us apart,” Parker says with characteristic understatement. “Are you trying to tell me that a test knows more than a teacher who has worked with that kid for 180 days?”

Even the social scene in Roanoke Rapids isn’t as barren as it might first appear. Ledford and her husband, Jason, have found people to socialize with in town, and they regularly have friends over for dinner. She also pals around outside of work with language arts and social studies teacher Jennifer Fowler, with whom she co-coaches the cheerleading squad at Chaloner.

Williams and his wife are active in their church and frequently attend community plays and musical productions. And, like many young teachers in Roanoke Rapids, they find the two-hour drive to Raleigh tolerable enough to make frequent weekend trips to see art exhibits and other larger-city attractions. It would be easy to complain about the lack of things to do in the immediate vicinity, Williams concedes, but why complain about what’s missing when you can take advantage of what’s around you?

“There’s plenty to do if you avail yourself of it, and there’s plenty of room to complain you don’t have enough to do,” Williams says. “What there is to do depends on what you make for yourself. In Roanoke Rapids or New York City, you can be isolated wherever you are.”

Vol. 16, Issue 05, Pages 16-19

Published in Print: March 1, 2005, as Greener Pastures
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