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NORMAL — School is in session, but some Illinois districts are facing a teacher shortage that could wind up costing them programs.

Sixty percent of Illinois school districts reported trouble filling teaching positions in a survey recently released by Illinois’ regional superintendents of schools. 

In Central Illinois, some rural districts reported shortages, but districts in and around McLean County contacted by The Pantagraph said the situation isn't as dire — thanks to appealing communities and nearby universities in larger cities like Bloomington-Normal.

But the situation could get worse: Fewer students are studying to become teachers.

Enrollment declines in teacher education programs statewide started to hit around 2010 and 2011, said Amee Adkins, senior associate dean of Illinois State University's College of Education.

Enrollment in elementary, middle school and early childhood education seems to have stabilized, but secondary education is still struggling, Adkins said.

She thinks the economic downturn of 2008 is part of the story, along with ongoing pension issues, negative comments about the teaching profession and more lucrative jobs in other fields.

"We aren’t having trouble filling positions, but the pool is narrowing” said Herschel Hannah, assistant superintendent of human resources at Bloomington District 87. "People are finding they can make more money doing something else. When we find people who are committed to changing lives, that’s who you want in your classrooms."

As with other things, location is a part of the puzzle, too. 

“They want to work somewhere that will be a pleasant place to live and teach. Unfortunately, some communities in Illinois are stressed and challenged differently which affects their perception to candidates,” said Hannah.

LeRoy School Superintendent Gary Tipsord agreed the nature of local communities helps keep teachers in the area.

“We have a better chance to retain employees because of everything Bloomington-Normal brings to the table in terms of quality of life,” said Tipsord.

The survey said 16 percent of schools had to cancel programs due to teacher shortages in specific subjects. Local districts said the most difficult positions to fill are specialty programs, such as foreign language, speech pathology and physics.

Adkins thinks there is “some distortion along with some issues” in the survey.

For example, some superintendents said they are getting only 30 applicants instead of 100 applicants for each vacancy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t finding qualified people to fill the positions, explained Adkins.

"Some schools are truly struggling,” said Blue Ridge Superintendent Susan Wilson. "I know of a district that has no high school math teacher and they can’t find an acceptable candidate.”

When a third of Blue Ridge staff retired over three or four years, Wilson said they were able to fill the positions.

At McLean County-based Unit 5, the key is to stay aggressive by analyzing retirements and enrollment, said Bruce Weldy, human resources coordinator.

"It's an ongoing cycle. We work closely with the universities to bring in new teachers," he said. 

And, schools across the region are still in need of substitute teachers. To attract more candidates, Olympia recently raised the daily pay for substitutes from $85 to $100. Substitute and student teaching allows new educators to get their feet wet.

“Many of our recent teacher hires have been ISU graduates," said Olympia Superintendent Andrew Wise. "I believe new teachers want to work in a pro-growth environment where there is both high expectations and support to reach those expectations." 

At the same time, ISU has seen a 27 percent decline in teacher education majors from 2009 to 2014, even though the university's overall enrollment has been steady or rising.

To address the shortage, the state and schools need to “think of some creative alternatives” and look toward “untapped sources that can contribute,” Adkins said.

Illinois is among states with a Troops to Teachers program. ISU is reaching out to community colleges near military installations, providing information on its teacher education programs, Adkins said.

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Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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