HANCOCK COUNTY — When Hailey Earl graduated from Greenfield-Central High School in 2013, she was confident when she finished college four years later she’d become a teacher.
But two years into the elementary education program at Ball State University, her initial enthusiasm for a career as an educator had faded. Deterred from a field she said is fraught with demoralizing standards, low pay and a lack of public appreciation, Earl decided to switch majors and pursue a different career.
“I was passionate about it, but teachers just aren’t given the credit they’re due,” Earl said.
Data recently released by the Indiana Department of Education suggest Earl isn’t alone in her thinking.
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Since the 2013-14 school year, the number of licenses issued to teachers, school administrators and support staff has fallen by 21 percent to 3,802, more than 2,000 fewer than were issued in the 2012-13 school year, state records show.
School administrators from Hancock County’s public school systems are feeling the effects of the drop, finding fewer qualified candidates are applying for open teaching positions and that it’s become more difficult to retain top-notch teachers.
Lisa Lantrip, superintendent of Southern Hancock School Corp., said she suspects the issue will worsen before it improves, and most likely, it will be a few years before the state sees the number of licenses issued increase.
“We’re at the tip of the shortage now; there’s more to come,” said Lantrip, who recently joined the state Department of Education’s Commission on the Recruitment and Retention of Excellent Educators, which has been asked to develop strategies to motivate more students to enter the field.
The 49-member commission met twice in September and will have four more meetings this year, Lantrip said. At its first two meetings, members of the commission, which includes university deans and professors, state legislators and public school superintendents, discussed possible interventions.
The group is assessing three major categories: compensation and working conditions; professional development and support; and public perceptions of the profession, Lantrip said. The commission is still reviewing data and hasn’t arrived at any conclusions, she said.
Lantrip said the goal is to make recommendations to lawmakers for the 2016 legislative session. Finding a solution will require the collaboration of politicians, officials at the department of education and leaders from local universities and colleges, she said.
Meanwhile, school administrators are coping with a smaller pool of qualified applicants than they’ve seen in decades, said Christy Hilton, assistant superintendent for Greenfield-Central School Corp.
“A few years ago, if I posted an opening at one of the elementary schools, I’d easily receive 400, 500 applicants,” she said. “At the peak this year, we might have gotten 40 or 50.”
Representatives from Eastern Hancock and Mt. Vernon schools said they also have seen a drop in the number of applications received.
Hilton said she has ramped up efforts in recent years to entice quality candidates to consider the district. She now attends recruitment fairs in the spring at local universities, setting up interviews and generating interest for Greenfield-Central.
“You can’t just rely on job postings online anymore,” she said. “You have to make contacts and reach out to candidates to stay connected,” she said.
Hilton said the district’s mentoring program, which pairs incoming educators with experienced peers, is designed to make sure new teachers are comfortable in their new environments.
Charlie Hart, a second-year teacher at Greenfield Intermediate School, decided to switch career paths after a nearly 20-year career in the finance, marketing and manufacturing industries. While the transition to teaching was jarring at first, he said, he’s settled into the profession nicely, largely because of the mentoring program.
“There were days where that saved me,” he said. “I had so many questions, but having somebody who’s been there and done it all before to bounce ideas off was a lot of help.”
Rhonda Peterson, Southern Hancock curriculum director, said she, too, has taken measures to ensure that, once teachers are hired into the district, they want to stay there.
“Those first few years are critical to retaining teachers,” said Peterson, who runs an induction program for new teachers.
The program meets five times a year and invites some of the district’s seasoned educators to share tips on classroom management and strategies for integrating technology into lessons.
Peterson said she’s noticed fewer applications for math, science and engineering teaching positions in particular. But those teachers are in higher demand than ever, she said, as school systems place greater emphasis on STEM offerings, an acronym referring to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.
Southern Hancock expanded its curriculum this year to include a biomedical program in its Project Lead the Way class, which emphasizes hands-on experiences in engineering and science disciplines.
Though Peterson said Southern Hancock has filled all of its vacant positions with worthy candidates, she’s worried about what the future might hold as teachers retire and leave the school system, leaving positions open with fewer candidates to choose from.
“Schools just have to cross that bridge when they get to it,” Peterson said.