By Liza Moore
Applications for teaching positions in Buena Vista are down 60% in the past four years, said John Keeler, Buena Vista City Public School’s superintendent.
Yet at the start of the 2019 school year, Buena Vista had just one open teacher position and three vacant teacher aid jobs.
That success is due in part to a program for high school students to take college level courses in education while still in high school — plus more financial support for teachers from the state.
Buena Vista implemented Teachers for Tomorrow four years ago to get students interested in careers as teachers. Under the dual-enrollment program, juniors and seniors at Parry McCluer High School can receive credit from Dabney S. Lancaster Community College as they learn to be educators by working with Buena Vista elementary and middle schools.
Keeler said the partnership helps schools by providing more assistance in the classroom and simultaneously guiding high schoolers through their career search.
The program also helps Buena Vista capitalize on the loyalty of Parry McCluer graduates.
Brandi Kerr graduated from Parry McCluer High School in 2011 and now teaches fifth grade at Enderly Heights Elementary.
“I was inspired to become a teacher in Buena Vista first and foremost because I am a Buena Vista native,” said Kerr. “I have lived here my entire life and even went Enderly Heights when I was in elementary school. Being able to teach at the same school I went to as a child is so rewarding.”
Kerr’s decision to return home is common, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
“Asked why they live where they do, movers most often cite the pull of economic opportunity,” a Pew study on U.S. citizens’ living habits said. “Stayers most often cite the tug of family and connections.”
Virginia prides itself on its commitment to education but lags other states when it comes to teacher pay.
“Our state ranks top 10 in education, but 39th in pay,” said Keeler “That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re talking to teachers.”
The average public-school teacher salary in Virginia was $50,834 in 2017-2018. The national average that academic year was $58,353, according to the Virginia Department of Education – 15 percent more.
But Virginia’s urban areas and smaller towns like Buena Vista have wide disparities between salaries.
In some northern Virginia counties, average teacher salaries top $70,000.
In Buena Vista City Public Schools, the average teacher salary for 2017-2018 was $43,986. The estimated average for 2019-2020 is $44,500, says Keeler.
Keeler believes Gov. Ralph Northam’s support for higher teacher pay has helped bring teachers to Virginia. The state raised teachers’ salaries by five percent for the 2019-2020 school year.
Another economic hurdle for aspiring teachers can be acquiring their license.
To earn a teaching license in Virginia, applicants must complete training courses and pass many tests. Each test has a fee.
“I failed it four times before passing it on my fifth,” said Kerr in regard to taking Pravis I, a teacher certification test in a series of exams to receive her license. “It cost over $100 each time to take the test, so by the time I had passed it, I was out nearly $500.”
With not enough certified teachers, Keeler said Buena Vista has had to “take a chance on teachers that are a class or few short.”
Teachers with provisional licenses are given up to three years to complete the required licensure tests.
Despite going through the challenges of receiving a teaching certification, Kerr believes “it would not benefit the students if they received their full license before entering the classroom, as those tests and additional classes will help prepare the students [to become teachers].”