DeKalb County, known to be the third-largest district in Georgia, has faced a myriad of challenges recently. From school maintenance problems, a shortage of bus drivers, and an ongoing challenge of teacher retention, DeKalb is mirroring an ongoing trend that has scaled nationally. Teachers are more likely to quit when working in districts with lower wages and when their salaries are low relative to alternative wage opportunities.
According to an August 2023 report from Learning Policy Institute, nearly half of all U.S. schools were experiencing shortages. Part of the issue is attributable to an increase in attrition rates. “Much higher attrition rates for U.S. teachers are a function of dissatisfaction with teaching, ranging from salaries and working conditions to lack of decision-making input,” says the report. “Roughly 9 of 10 teachers hired each year are replacing colleagues who left, most for reasons other than retirement.”
LPI also adds: “Areas of shortages — including mathematics, science, special education, and bilingual education- thus far show little sign of response to labor market demand.”
This has led to a growing number of unqualified teachers filling those space. As far back as 2017, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported: “Educators associations are worried about the growing trend of using uncertified teachers to fill the gaps.” In 2021, studies showed that more than 34% of newly entering teachers were not certified for their assignments.
Not only is there a growing concern in the validity of teacher certification, but educators have shed light on their doubts with a reform in school curriculum. A DeKalb County School Board educator recently shared: “I am being pushed to consider leaving DeKalb, and one reason is the rollout of the new curriculum. The curriculum was launched and not fully uploaded before school began. As an educator who takes time to plan a scope and sequence, this makes it difficult to see the big picture of where I am being expected to guide my students during the year.”
COVID has also been a contributor to the teacher shortage and has led to a reform in school curriculums regarding technology. Dr. Tanya Persaud-White, a teacher at DeKalb School of the Arts, tells VOX ATL that she finds difficulty in teaching her students now that the Board is leaning more toward using technology. “As an AP Language Arts teacher, resources needed to teach in the classroom aren’t as accessible,” she says. “Textbooks are hard to attain online, and I’ve had to compensate on my own by buying materials for my students.”
To resolve the teacher retention issue, DeKalb County Superintendent spearheaded an aggressive hiring campaign that included hosting and attending job fairs, recruiting at nearby colleges and universities, and tapping into DeKalb’s substitute pool. As reported by Atlanta News First, DeKalb County Schools Human Resources Administrator Dr. Tekshia Ward-Smith revealed that DeKalb County filled 451 of the 600 teacher vacancies they had between June 2023 and the start of the new school year. In addition, with a 6% pay increase, increased bonuses and new returning-teacher rewards, DeKalb is offering multiple incentives to remain teaching. The only difference is: DeKalb County teachers are still paid less than other nearby counties, including Gwinnett, Fulton and Atlanta Public Schools, WABE reports.
However, is money alone enough to retain and positively impact the teaching department?
Amidst the attempts to incentivize teaching staff and schools, some students have yet to experience a positive change in their courses. Emmanuella Nakpane, a high school junior at Southwest DeKalb High, school tells VOX ATL that over the summer of 2023, the choral department at her school all but disappeared. “I’ve been interested in taking chorus class for a long time because I wanted to gain knowledge and experience in the career path I’m interested in. However, I’ve struggled to find ways to broaden my knowledge and experience on music in order to create a portfolio for my post-secondary school aspirations.”
Monetary funding, improved mentoring, better working conditions as well as supporting teachers are just a few of the ways in which the call to action for helping teachers can be solved. Rachael Harris, a junior at DeKalb School of the Arts (DSA), tells VOX ATL “It’s important that throughout my time at DSA that the teachers care about me. When multiple free services, such as after-school tutoring, [are] provided, it ensures that every student can fully grasp each concept.”
By incorporating these solutions, DeKalb County is on its path to create an inclusive and equitable future that every student and teacher can truly envision.