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Mississippi Schools Struggle With Teacher Shortage

April 8, 1993

YAZOO CITY, Miss. (AP) _ Educators trying to combat illiteracy in the poverty-ridden Mississippi Delta are having a hard time hiring teachers.

With some of the nation’s lowest pay and few benefits, 25 Delta school districts had more than 50 openings at the middle of this school year, the state Department of Education says. And the numbers are expected to rise dramatically next year.

″I’m getting gray hairs this year more than ever because finding teachers has been harder than ever,″ said Johnny Kennebrew, 44, the Yazoo City superintendent.

Kennebrew has used substitute teachers for months at a time, along with young college graduates and noncertified teachers, such as those who haven’t passed the National Teacher’s Examination. Few, if any, applicants are turned down.

″I remember a time when you could exercise more discretion,″ Kennebrew said. ″Unless the state addresses it, this situation will get worse. We will have children and we won’t have anybody to educate them.″

Heightening the problem in Mississippi is retirement. About half of Mississippi’s 28,000 classroom teachers have more than 15 years experience. After 25 years, a teacher can retire with full benefits.

Fewer young teachers are available to replace them.

Kennebrew faces another challenge - recruiting black teachers for his predominantly black district. Most of the Yazoo City teachers are white.

″Black teachers are becoming an endangered species,″ said state Sen. David Jordan of Greenwood, a black who has taught for 30 years.

About 30 percent of the state’s teachers are minorities. Nearly 51 percent of Mississippi’s more than 500,000 public school students are black.

State Schools Superintendent Tom Burnham said out-of-state schools pursue black education students at Mississippi’s colleges and have them sign contracts before graduation.

The lure is more money, he said, and Mississippi is an easy state to raid. In the 1991-1992 school year, Mississippi ranked 50th in average teacher salary at $24,368, according to National Education Association figures.

Last month, the Legislature passed a 3 percent pay raise for teachers, who last got a raise in 1987. Gov. Kirk Fordice has until mid-April to decide whether to sign the raise.

Lawmakers also agreed to pay for teachers’ health insurance. The state will pay part of the cost next year and pick up the $50 million tab for insurance by the 1994 school year.

The Legislature also passed a bill that would provide more loan and grant money for college students who teach in areas short of teachers.

For Billy Walker, 31, on the Yazoo City school staff, the grants would have helped. He said he borrowed thousands of dollars to get his Ole Miss degree. He is also taking classes for a master’s degree while trying to pass the National Teacher’s Examination.

″Probably when I die I’ll still owe them (loans),″ Walker said during a break from teaching second-grade students with learning disabilities. The class is in a nearly 45-year-old building, which like most Yazoo City schools, has no air conditioners.

Walker said he agonizes over finances. After paying rent, a car note and credit card bills, Walker said he has no money for insurance.

″I couldn’t afford a wife. I wouldn’t even look,″ he said.

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