We’re not talking about an illegal substance when we say, “grow your own.” The medical community long has found the strategy to be successful, providing rural students with scholarships and other incentives to return to their hometowns or similar regions that are experiencing a shortage of trained professionals.

The educational community is facing the same crisis, and applying the same tactic to recruit and retain qualified educators.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, visited McCook last week to make the point: We have a serious shortage on our hands.

There’s been a 50 percent decrease of college students planning to head into education, about 3,000 today as compared to 7,000 a decade ago. And, nearly a third of those who do become teachers drop out of the profession within three years.

That’s a dire situation considering the number of baby boom-generation educators ready to leave the classroom.

It’s especially true in rural areas, where schools are vital to the economic health of small communities, and declining populations make it difficult to keep schools open.

In some instances, schools literally have held key positions open by bringing teachers out of retirement on a temporary basis while upcoming teachers complete their training.

According to the Nebraska Department of Education 2018-19 teacher vacancy report, 302 positions were unfilled with fully qualified personnel, with 36 of those left vacant. Of those 302 positions, 27 percent were in schools with fewer than 500 students, and 37 percent were in systems with more than 10,000 students.

The growing student debt problem certainly contributes to the issue, Benson said, and the shortage isn’t just certified teachers — 45 paraeducator positions were open in Omaha for the current term.

Incentives certainly can help improve the teacher shortage problem, but so can organizations like “Educators Rising,” an organization with 30 chapters around Nebraska working to help students on their way to becoming professional educators. It recently sent 50 student members to a national competition.

Funding for public schools is one of the main items to be affected by any changes that result from the ongoing debate about property taxes in Nebraska.

Keeping dedicated, qualified educators in the classroom must be a priority in any legitimate debate.

McCook Daily Gazette

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