There is a growing concern about an unsettling teacher shortage trend throughout the state. At the March Kansas Board of Education meeting, Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson announced a Blue Ribbon Task Force would be created to look at the issue. During a job fair last fall in Emporia, 102 districts were represented but only 78 new teacher candidates attended the event.
In southwest Kansas the situation may be more challenging than in any other region. Last fall both the Dodge City and Garden City districts started the school year with dozens of unfilled teaching positions.
Newman University Western Kansas Center Director Jessica Bird believes southwest Kansas is in a teacher shortage crisis.
“I don't have exact numbers, but I do know that Garden City already has 60 anticipated openings for next year and that number will continue to grow over the month of May. I would imagine Liberal and Dodge are seeing about the same numbers of openings at this point,” Bird said.
Bird has worked in the region’s education field for nearly 20 years, and she said one of the more troubling trends is the shortage of elementary teachers.
“It’s really unheard of until recently,” Bird said. “We’ve been dealing with shortages in the secondary and special education positions in southwest Kansas for a while, but the fact we’re now struggling to fill all of the elementary spots in the area is an indication of how widespread the problem is in our region.”
It will take a lot of work to turn the trend, she said.
“We need to find ways to encourage students to enter the field of education despite the negative efforts of the governor and some legislators. We need to remember that our children are the ones who suffer when we don't have qualified teachers in the classroom. The effects on our school age kids are detrimental and cause more kids to fall behind and fall through the cracks,” Bird said.
The Newman Western Kansas Center, at 236 San Jose, Suite 39, in Dodge City, is doing its part. Through Bird’s leadership and efforts of the staff, Newman is proactive and reaching out to local students in creative ways to encourage them to look at education as a career.
“We need to create pathways for students to explore the field of education and to start working toward their associate's degree in high school, so that they can get into the field earlier and help with the teacher shortage,” Bird said.
“We need to foster and embrace ‘grow your own’ programs in each of our communities. We need to continue to build partnerships and bridges between Pre K-12 education and higher education. We need to be creative in finding solutions to this problem and to think outside the box.”
Last December, the Newman Western Kansas Center had 13 students graduate. All of the graduates are either in a full time teaching position or substitute teaching for their district. The majority of them had job offers prior to graduating.
“The news is even better, as of right now 25 more students are on track to graduate in December 2016,” Bird said.
Newman provides better scholarships than most universities, and rewards students who have excelled in the classroom.
“I let potential students know that our program is a great value. The experience we offer is personalized, flexible and geared to each student’s success.” Bird said.
“We’re very competitive on price, especially if a student is a member of Phi Theta Kappa and has a GPA of 3.5 or higher. I also make students aware that they could be eligible for the TEACH Grant, which could provide them with up to $4,000 per year,” Bird added.
With great scholarships and a shorter time to graduate, students can benefit from Newman’s small personalized experience at a very comparable cost to public college options.
Successful students at the Newman Western Kansas Center graduate with an Elementary Education degree that certifies them to teach K-6th grade. The center also offers a middle-level endorsement and an Early Childhood Unified certificate.
Bird believes the Newman Western Kansas Center education programs provide many benefits for future teachers.
“First and foremost, our students will gain the knowledge and skills to help make them outstanding teachers. Our job placement is nearly 100 percent after graduating from our accelerated program,” Bird explained. “Instructors in our program already have local school districts ties, giving our students a chance to show district leaders what they are capable of, thus increasing chances of being hired in their district.
“Another big benefit is a student can complete our program in just 16 months if he or she comes to us with an associate's degree,” Bird said. “In my opinion, that gives them an edge over graduates from other programs. A student can graduate in December and be working full time with a teaching contract in January.”
Flexibility is a key element of the center’s education programs. The coursework schedule allows students a life-friendly approach to getting a degree.
“Our program allows for our students to be able to work, if need be. Our classes are all offered in the evenings, typically in an eight-week course format,” Bird said. “We have live instructors who are extremely qualified and great teachers themselves, plus our students get to build a cohort with their peers to help them through the program.”
To be accepted into the center’s education program a student needs an associate's degree or 60 or more college credit hours, including Composition 1 and 2, Public Speaking, College Algebra and General Psychology, plus an Introduction to Philosophy and a New or Old Testament course. The minimum GPA requirement is 2.5.
“If someone is interested in seeing if they are a good fit for our program, I am available to meet and do a transcript analysis,” Bird said.
The center offers face-to-face instruction in Dodge City and Garden City or through interactive television in Great Bend, Hutchinson, Liberal, Pratt, Ulysses, Scott City, Syracuse and Sharon.
In addition to its undergraduate programs, Newman offers Western Kansas teachers master’s degrees and licensure options in ESOL Curriculum and Instruction, Organizational Leadership, Building Leadership and Reading Specialist Curriculum and Instruction.
This story first appeared in the Doge City Globe.