Data shows the number of teachers who are leaving the profession in South Carolina each year greatly outnumbers the number of students who complete a teacher education program in South Carolina each year.

Aiken County Public School District is taking steps in recruiting and retention to combat that problem and ensure the best teachers are instructing the county's kids.

According to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, & Advancement (CERRA), a supply and demand report, for the 2018-19 year, 5,341 teachers stopped teaching in the state the previous year. That same year, just 1,642 people completed a South Carolina teacher education program.

"Teaching and learning is our core mission," said Dr. Sean Alford, superintendent of the Aiken County Pubic School District. "It is critical that we recruit and retain the best instructors we possibly can so that we provide students the best opportunities to gain foundational knowledge and skills that will contribute positively to our future workforce and community."

Aiken County takes a wide approach to recruit teachers from both in and out of state.

"First of all, we have a very strong relationship with USC Aiken," said Jennifer Hart, director of human resources for the district.

"Every graduate of education at USC Aiken who successfully completes the program … is offered a contract within our school district," she said.

Hart said if someone who went to school in the area or attended USC Aiken wants to work for the school district, they want them to.

"When you talk about retention, your retention rates are obviously much better with somebody who grew up in Aiken, lives in Aiken, has always been in Aiken," Hart said.

Due to the teacher shortage in the state, though, the district must still recruit teachers outside of South Carolina.

Hart said even though South Carolina isn't graduating enough teachers to fill the state's needs, there are other states where it isn't quite the same.

A few states the district has targeted for recruiting purposes include Ohio, Michigan, New York and Kentucky.

Jason Holt, new principal of Aiken High School, has been on some of the district's out-of-state recruiting trips and was part of a team that recruited Allison Verhotz, last year's First Year Teacher of the Year, from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Holt described the teacher recruitment fair at Bowling Green that year. He said the district is one table in an arena full of districts. They meet people, he said, but in Allison's case, she had signed up to visit them.

When selling the area to potential teachers, recruiters bring up a variety of reasons why the Aiken County school district – and Aiken County itself – is desirable.

Hart mentioned Aiken's title of 2018 Best Small Town, bestowed by Southern Living readers, as one selling point, as well as the weather.

"Aiken has a lot to offer, and if you've been living in the snow, (a) non-snow climate might be appealing," she said.

Aiken being equidistant from the mountains and the ocean, and from Charlotte and Atlanta, is a selling point both Holt and Hart mentioned.

Job-wise, ACPSD boasts the highest starting teacher salary in the state. A teacher with a bachelor's degree starts at $40,227 per year in Aiken. The average teacher salary in Aiken is $50,946, which is slightly higher than bigger, yet higher cost of living, cities like Charleston and Greenville.

Another selling point Holt mentioned is support teachers receive as it relates to their growth and development as a teacher.

"They want to make money as young professionals, as we all do, but they really want to grow professionally and when we … outline 'here's what we do and provide,' I think that's the biggest hook for young professionals."

As of Monday, June 17, the district had 77 vacancies in certified staff with 48 of those being inside classrooms. There were 130 openings for classified staff.

Alford said the district is at about 30% fewer vacancies than in June 2018.  

Along with recruiting new teachers, the district works on the retention side to keep existing teachers around.

Hart said in early fall of 2018, at the school board's request, a recruitment and retention committee was formed.

"We brought in about 20 different folks from different positions within the school district. Some teachers who had left teaching as a profession or left Aiken County, as well as current administrators, teachers, special ed teachers, media specialists, just a wide group of folks," she said. "The committee met and has looked at why people leave, why they stay and other aspects of getting teachers to Aiken County and keeping them around."

Staying in Aiken

Alford said Aiken County has a five-year turnover rate average just below 10%, one of the lowest school district rates in South Carolina. Because it's so low, he said, the district hasn't qualified for additional funding from the state used to support school districts with recruitment and retention.

Why do teachers stay and plant their roots in Aiken County? Hart said one big reason is the community.

Another is the leadership teams that are built at the school level and, like Holt mentioned, the district's desire to help grow teachers on the career path to administration and leadership.

There's also a "sincere intent and desire" to have teacher input when the district is making major decisions, Hart said.

"Teachers have input in curriculum, they have input into the instructional framework, they have input even in recruitment and retention committees. We want to utilize our teacher leaders who have a heart passion in different areas to help build and grow and make the school district better."

Reasons teachers leave, Hart said, could be the flip-side of why they stay. 

"So for every teacher who has a supportive administrator, there could be another teacher who says 'my administrator wasn't supportive.' Some of those elements are subject and personal," she said. 

Other reasons they leave could include workload issues, which Hart said is an issue across the country, as well as discipline issues. 

"Just like any profession, teachers choose to stay or leave for a variety of reasons," Alford said. "I believe teachers seek value in their roles and relationships with members of the school community.  I’ve witnessed many teachers happily sacrifice their time and resources to pour into others. They feel like valued contributors when this sacrifice is recognized and appreciated by students and adults in the communities they serve. Most professionals stay in roles that provide a sense of value and appreciation."

Retirement and relocation are also reasons teachers leave. Retirement numbers for 2018-19 were one-third of what they were the previous year, Alford said. 

Hyping up teaching as a career could help with the current shortage.

"This is a fantastic profession, people are called to it," Hart said. "When we think about the message that is sent to our youth, how often do we tell our youth how great of a job this is versus how many times do they hear some of the negative aspects? Every job, every career has pros and cons we know that," she said.

Hart said she wants to talk about the good. "It doesn't minimize that there's room and opportunity for improvement and positive change, but I want to celebrate how fantastic of a profession this is. How many jobs can you go into where you know legitimately every single day that you are touching someone's life?"

Alford said the district displays appreciation for its teachers through "overt and operational efforts."

"From collaborative community events like Amp The Appreciation, which we hosted in The Alley last March, to increasing opportunities for teacher input in organizational decision making, we have made intentional efforts to affirm our appreciation of teachers and staff. As an example, teachers now participate in the interview and selection process of building principals at their assigned location. Teacher input into the selection of their future advocate helps to strengthen the relationships of school staff and enhances their involvement in organizational decision making."

Lindsey Hodges is a general assignment reporter at the Aiken Standard and North Augusta Star. Follow her on Twitter at @LindseyNHodges.