Dept. of Ed reports nearly 2,600 teacher vacancies, a slight decrease from last year


Dept. of Ed reports nearly 2,600 teacher vacancies, a slight decrease from last year

Certified teacher vacancies in Mississippi have decreased since last year, with 2,593 reported for the 2022-23 school year according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

The did not start tracking its critical teacher shortage until 2021, when the department found just over 3,000 public school teaching positions were either completely vacant or held by teachers who were not properly certified.

Courtney Van Cleve, MDE director of educator talent acquisition and effectiveness, said the survey data provided “one of the clearest pictures of Mississippi’s educator workforce that we have had to date.”

Elementary school teachers make up a third of all vacancies, at 32%, but high school teachers were close behind with 31%. In high school, the greatest vacancies are in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes.

“It’s encouraging that we have fewer vacancies, but we still have too many vacancies in districts throughout our state,” said Riley, director of Mississippi Professional Educators.

Riley specifically called the 335 special education teacher vacancies “alarming” because it is a subject area she said has been on the critical shortage list for too long, since at least the 2019-20 school year.

Administrator vacancies have also decreased from last year, but vacancies for support staff, such as custodians or administrative assistants, have not. Particularly, there have been increases in vacancies for teacher assistants and bus drivers.

Van Cleve said districts linked this increase to an uptick in responsibilities to address pandemic-related learning loss without an increase in wages.

“Things like one-on-one tutorials with a teacher assistant or extended day bus routes or Saturday bus routes are leaving them in a place feeling … fairly overwhelmed,” Van Cleve said.

Van Cleve said that while there are still vacancies to be addressed, the department has seen success by creating some flexibility in teacher licensure. This has allowed a greater number of teachers to enter the field with similar outcomes to other teachers.

Toren Ballard, K-12 policy director for Mississippi First, lauded the department for tracking this information but said he would have liked to see it presented at the district level.

“Overall it’s about 500 less vacancies than last year, which looks like a good statistic, but I think it doesn’t cover the whole story,” said Ballard.

In the 2021-22 school year, Mississippi had 32,199 teachers working in classrooms and the average salary was $47.902, according to MDE.

Even after the pay raise offered by the Legislature last year, Mississippi First found in a new report the number of teachers who left their district at the end of the 2021-22 school year still increased, with 23.7% of all teachers not returning. Teachers in poorly rated districts were also more likely to leave, with 32% of teachers in F-rated districts leaving at the end of last year to 16% in A-rated districts.

READ MORE: ‘It was an easy choice for me’: 17% of teachers left their district in the 2020-21 school year

The report also found that half of Mississippi teachers cannot afford at least one of the following: adequate food, transportation, housing, or medical care. Financial insecurity, and student debt specifically, was most closely linked with a risk of leaving the classroom. Teachers who work in low-rated school districts and teachers of color both reported significantly higher student debt burdens.

To address these impacts, Mississippi First recommends an annual stipend for teaching in critical shortage areas and an expansion of eligibility for the existing Winter-Reed Teacher Loan Repayment Program. Currently, the program is only available to traditional route teachers in their first year of teaching and has a cap on the number of applicants that can be assisted each year, which does not allow the financial aid office to use the total appropriation for the program each year. The organization recommends expanding eligibility regardless of years of experience or path to the classroom, as well as removing the cap.

“Our work in improving the educator pipeline is not finished,” Ballard said. “Some of the disparities and financial issues that are underpinning the teacher shortage in Mississippi have been around for so long that it’s going to take more than one year of a pay raise to really start making some progress in addressing this issue.”

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Public officials met in ‘confidence’ to overhaul state financial aid. Their proposal could become law


Public officials met in ‘confidence’ to overhaul state financial aid. Their proposal could become law

A task force of public officials met behind closed doors last year to discuss revamping Mississippi’s college financial aid programs, and lawmakers next week will begin debating a bill written based on the group’s private discussions.

The 16-person task force, which met several times last year outside public view, was comprised of multiple public officials, including an associate commissioner from the Institutions of Higher Learning, the interim executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board, two community college presidents, and the chair of the little-known board that oversees financial aid.

A bill has been filed in the based on the group’s proposal and a joint hearing has been for next week.

The president and CEO of Woodward Hines Education Foundation, the nonprofit that convened the task force, declined to discuss the details of the proposed overhaul until after the hearing, citing “the code of confidence we promised members.”

“It won’t be the Mississippi One Grant, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Woodward Hines CEO Jim McHale told Mississippi Today, referring to the controversial 2021 plan that would have resulted in Black and low-income students losing thousands of dollars in state financial aid for college. That proposal, which failed to gain any support from lawmakers, was also conceived largely in the dark — a point of contention among many critics.

The group’s meetings, undisclosed until now, are notable because the closed-door deliberations inspired legislation that aims to spend taxpayer dollars. Yet no students who receive financial aid or will be affected by the proposed changes were invited to attend.

Mississippi Today has obtained records from the task force, including a letter McHale sent in May 2022 inviting members to join that details its goal: to “explore how Mississippi’s student financial aid investments can be best leveraged to meet the economic development needs of the State.”

Jennifer Rogers, director of the Office of Financial Aid.

The task force met over the course of at least eight meetings moderated by HCM Strategies, a consulting firm brought in by Woodward Hines, which synthesized members’ discussions into a proposal. The task force approved the final proposal not by a vote, said Jennifer Rogers, a participant and director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, but “agreement by discussion.”

According to a PowerPoint created by HCM Strategies, the proposal would substantially change two state aid programs aimed at helping students from low- and middle-income families afford college, while leaving the state’s most racially inequitable aid program virtually untouched.

The Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students — called the HELP grant — would be reduced. The HELP grant currently pays up to four years of tuition at the state’s community colleges and public and private universities, no matter what institution a recipient attends.

The task force recommended lowering the HELP grant for freshmen and sophomores to the cost of tuition at the community colleges, even if a recipient decides to go to a four-year university. The last two years of the HELP grant would cover the cost of tuition at the universities.

HELP recipients, by and large, have preferred to use the generous financial aid award to attend four-year public and private universities rather than community colleges, according to OSFA’s annual reports.

The revised HELP grant would aim to push more recipients to attend community colleges, a change that Rogers said “the community colleges wanted to see.”

The task force also included the presidents of Itawamba Community College and Mississippi Delta Community College, the executive vice president at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, according to HCM’s PowerPoint.

The proposal made the most changes to the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant, or MTAG, which provides up to $500 a year to freshmen and sophomores and $1,000 a year to juniors and seniors.

Those amounts would increase to $1,000 and $2,000, respectively, and eligibility would broaden to include Pell Grant recipients and part-time students. Students from families that make more than 200% of the median household income in Mississippi ($49,111 in 2021, according to the Census Bureau) would no longer be eligible. The requirement to get a minimum of 15 on the ACT would be .

The goal of these changes to MTAG is to “expand workforce preparation,” according to HCM’s PowerPoint. To that end, the grant would be renamed “MTAG Works.” Students would also get a $500 “bonus” if they pursue degrees in a “high value pathway” as defined by the state’s workforce development office.

A bill filed by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the chair of the House Colleges and Universities Committee, is virtually identical to draft legislation that Rogers wrote based on the proposal. In the bill, the “bonus” amounts were changed to be equal to a percent of the average tuition at public universities.

If Scoggin’s bill becomes law, the new programs would go into effect next year. Sen. Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth, who chairs the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee, told Mississippi Today she has filed identical legislation. She called for the joint legislative hearing next week.

There were no lawmakers on the task force but Potts Parks said she knew about the meetings. Each legislative session, Potts Parks said that IHL and the community colleges ask for changes to the state’s financial aid programs but up until now, every proposal has been too controversial to go forward.

“I’m very proud of that group of individuals that came together,” said Potts Parks. “I will tell you, I never dreamed that they would be able to come to an agreement.”

All told, the revamped programs would cost the state an additional $21 million on top of the existing programs, according to HCM Strategies’s PowerPoint, based on the estimated number of new recipients.

The proposal does not address several existing issues with the way Mississippi hands out public money for college. It does not fix the eligibility “cliff” that prevents low-income families making slightly more than $39,500 from receiving the HELP grant nor would it make the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant, the state’s primary merit-based grant, more racially equitable.

Though McHale said Woodward Hines’ staff were “the conveners” of the task force, he wouldn’t discuss the proposal prior to the hearings because “it wasn’t our plan.”

But Woodward Hines has pushed it along the legislative process, helping to set up meetings between lawmakers and task force members. A calendar invite obtained by Mississippi Today shows that Woodward Hines’ registered lobbyist, John Morgan Hughes, scheduled a meeting on Jan. 10 in Scoggin’s office for a “Post Secondary Bill Walk Through.”

Rogers, who presented draft legislation at that meeting, said Potts Parks, Scott Waller from the Mississippi Economic Council and Nick Hall from Speaker Philip Gunn’s office also attended, but their names aren’t listed on the calendar invite.

“They were a driving force behind it,” Potts Parks said of Woodward Hines. “I mean, they’ve been a driving force behind trying to improve education for quite some time.”

This is not the first time that attempts to revamp state financial aid in Mississippi have been less than transparent. The failed Mississippi One Grant — which Woodward Hines advocated against — was created by a committee of financial aid advisors that met outside public view.

McHale invited higher education and workforce officials from across the state to participate in Woodward Hines’s task force after the One Grant failed to gain any legislative support last year.

The task force met during the second half of last year and the discussion progressed from understanding state financial aid policy in Mississippi to “communication strategies” and “advocacy,” according to meeting minutes.

Members heard from experts in higher education and workforce policy, but Rogers said that student recipients of state financial aid did not attend. The only explicit mention in the meeting minutes of recipient input came during the second meeting when the task force watched a of “student voices.”

At a Zoom meeting of the Post-Secondary Education Financial Assistance Board on Tuesday, the chair, Jim Turcotte, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the task force’s proposal. Turcotte was one of three financial aid board members who participated or were represented on the task force, but he said that he did not speak on their behalf.

“I didn’t say, ‘this is what we want’ or ‘this isn’t what we want,’ but I did react when asked and sometimes when not asked,” Turcotte said. “I shared my opinions and asked my questions.”

The joint legislative hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Jan. 24 at 9 a.m. at the Capitol in Room 204. Rogers said she plans to present the PowerPoint created by HCM.

Editor’s note: The Woodward Hines Education Foundation is a Mississippi Today donor.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

State announces infant’s COVID-19 death amid modest rise in Mississippi cases


State announces infant’s COVID-19 death amid modest rise in Mississippi cases

A Mississippi infant recently died due to complications from , the health department announced Wednesday.

This marks the first pediatric COVID in the state since February 2022, state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers told State Board of Health members at their meeting Wednesday. This is the 14th death of a child under the age of 18 due to COVID-19 in the state.

“So it is a reminder that COVID is still out there, it’s still transmitted, and it can still lead to severe complications,” Byers said at the meeting. “So, it’s important for everybody who is eligible to stay up-to-date for vaccinations.”

Byers gave limited details but said the child was under a year old.

“Remember that when we get vaccinated, not only does it protect us, but it also protects those individuals around us who are vulnerable, who may not be eligible for vaccination, or may be folks who are in those higher risk categories,” Byers said.

Pandemic numbers have risen some recently – a normal trend for the winter – but Byers said he was encouraged to see no dramatic spikes in case counts. Hospitalizations have started rising throughout the new year, along with an increase in ICU admissions and use of ventilators.

The health department reported as of Jan. 9, 365 hospital patients had confirmed COVID-19 infections; 50 were in the ICU and 18 were on ventilators. Last January’s peak had about 300 patients in the ICU and over 1,500 hospitalizations before numbers dropped drastically in March.

In its last weekly case count posted Tuesday, the health department reported 5,778 new cases and 15 COVID-related deaths between Dec. 27 to Jan. 2.

Cases last spiked during the summer and dropped during the fall before the current rise. Still, the current case count is about half of last January’s peak of over 10,000 cases in a seven-day period.

But with the rise of at-home testing and less-severe COVID-related symptoms caused by some of the virus’ newer strains, the state’s weekly count only gives some insight to how many cases are occurring statewide.

The health department recommends everyone 6 months old and older receives the vaccine and its boosters. Health officials especially recommend vaccinations for adults 65 and older and anyone with a weakened immune system or underlying health problems.

Four children died from the virus in Mississippi in 2022. One was between 1 and 5 years old and three others were between the ages of 11 and 17.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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