At West Carroll and across Sauk Valley, finding teachers gets harder

Julie Katzenberger, superintendent of West Carroll Community Unit School District 314 had to fill vacancies of more than 10% of her teaching staff, most created by retirements. A Mount Carroll native, she said there aren't as many available candidates for openings.

MOUNT CARROLL – Teaching vacancies aren’t unusual. Finding replacements, however, isn’t easy.

“It’s been really hard to find good, quality candidates,” West Carroll Community Unit School District 314 Superintendent Julie Katzenberger said.

Katzenberger is a career educator of 30 years, the last 17 as an administrator. She’s a Mount Carroll native.

“When I first started, the field used to be flooded,” she said. “The last three years, it’s just not many certified people out there.”

Although the teacher candidate shortage isn’t unique, northwest Illinois schools largely had been spared this nationwide problem until recently.

A sign marks the entrance to West Carroll Middle School in Mount Carroll.

About West Carroll

The district serves nearly 900 students who come from across the western third of Carroll County, an area close to 150 square miles.

The high school and primary schools are in Savanna, the latter campus just a brisk walk from picturesque Spring Lake, a meander of the Mississippi River, while the middle school and district offices reside in the county seat, which is notable for its downtown of historically significant buildings. Students also come from Thomson.

Katzenberger said the time frame for filling vacancies keeps getting extended. She used to have spots filled by the end of May; at the latest, June.

West Carroll went into this summer with seven vacancies – most were retirees – which accounts for more than 11% of the staff. The search took all summer, Katzenberger sometimes seeking out candidates directly for in-demand specialties.

“We’ve had a hard time filling Spanish,” she said.

Even after securing one Spanish-language instructor, Katzenberger was informed the day of staff orientation that the candidate was going elsewhere. Only at the last minute, did she find a replacement.

Those final hires were approved by the school board the same day students returned to school.

Janell Hartman is a sixth-grade teacher at West Carroll Middle and when the school year started Wednesday she walked a familiar path, escorting students through the hallway to her classroom.

She plans to retire after a long career. She’s done her part to encourage the next generation of educators: five other teachers in the district were once students in her classroom.

She knows filling her position likely will be difficult.

“When I started 34 years ago, there were 80 to 100 applicants for a job,” she said. “Now we beg to get them.”

Janell Hartman accompanies her sixth-grade students through the hallways during a bell-change on Wednesday morning at West Carroll Middle School in Mount Carroll. It was the first day of school.

Across the Sauk Valley

West Carroll wasn’t the only district in the region with a number of teacher openings. According to the IASA Illinois Education Job Bank, listings in late July showed four openings each at Amboy, Stillman Valley Meridian and Byron.

Meanwhile, East Coloma in Rock Falls, Ashton-Franklin, Paw Paw and Forrestville each had three teacher openings.

Larger districts serving towns in the Sauk Valley have also observed the change.

Sterling Public Schools Superintendent Tad Everett said some job postings solicit only a handful of inquiries. He harkens back to 2007, his last year as the district’s human resources director.

“So let me give you a crazy stat,” he said. “We had four elementary openings. I still remember the number. We had 1,107 applicants. You fast-forward 15 years, and this year for elementary openings, we have less than 20 to work from.”

Sterling had a complete teaching roster to present at August’s board meeting, although it required filling two spots after resignations the week prior. Everett commended the building principals, human resources and Assistant Superintendent Sara Dail, for securing replacements.

Dixon Public Schools had several late resignations, too, but “we’ve been very lucky,” Superintendent Margo Empen said.

If there has been a pattern to the recent spate of resignations, Empen said it’s because some teachers aren’t as willing to drive as they once were. High gas prices are only part of the equation.

“I think that we’re finding it is possibly COVID-related, but people realize that they want jobs closer to home,” she said. “They want to spend a little bit more time with family instead of having to drive so far to commute.”

Rock Falls High School filled its last two open positions at its July meeting.

Janell Hartman, a sixth-grade teacher at West Carroll Middle School in Mount Carroll, boots up her classroom video board to go over class schedules with her students on the first day of school on Wednesday.

Scope of the problem

School officials identified a teacher shortage as a nationwide problem a decade ago, mostly in states with growing populations. The rigors of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic have since depleted the ranks, usually by accelerating the pace of retirements.

In recent years, Illinois teaching vacancies generally have gone up, too.

For instance, in 2017 the Illinois State Board of Education reported 2,006 teaching vacancies across the state. It’s more than doubled since.

In 2020, there were 4,462 vacancies and in 2021, there were 4,120. The 2022 survey still is being compiled, but the vacancy total had climbed to 5,301 at last check.

According to the 2020 survey, which grouped vacancies by geographic area, more than 1,800 vacancies were in Chicago and some 1,600 were in the remainder of the northeast region.

The northwest region had far fewer vacancies – 376. However, even a single vacancy in a small rural district can determine whether a class is even taught, whereas large suburban districts can absorb a vacancy in a given department or grade-level.

Some contend the vacancy problem is inflated by an expansion of the teaching ranks.

An Aug. 9 report by The Center Square, a conservative news site of the Franklin News Foundation, said Illinois’ teacher employment has increased as student enrollment has decreased.

Illinois had 132,354 teachers in 2021, growing the ranks by 5,116 since 2018. For the same period, student enrollment declined from 2 million to 1.89 million.

However, that’s not the case in the four counties of the Sauk Valley, where teacher employment has declined in the past 10 years, largely matching enrollment decreases, according to the Illinois Report Card.

Lee County schools had 270 teachers in 2021, 23 fewer than in 2012. Whiteside County was at 590 teachers, 27 fewer than a decade earlier. Ogle County was down 59 teachers to 596 in that stretch while Carroll County was at 145 – a drop of 35 positions.

In fact, West Carroll CUSD 314 experienced one of the steepest reductions, going from 92 teachers in 2012 to 61 teachers in 2021.

Underlying causes

The Illinois Association of School Boards and other partners devoted six years to a survey and analysis of the problem. It issued a report authored by former Belleville Superintendent Jim Rosborg in 2021 that identified the underlying causes for diminished interest in the teaching profession.

It said the Test of Academic Proficiency was the biggest barrier to entry into the workforce. The test was removed in 2019, once it was shown that, over seven years, between 17% and 24% of candidates passed it annually.

The workforce, however, has not yet recovered from the culling of potential educators. The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools continues to survey districts. It found that in addition to the shortage of teachers, the ranks of administrators also are smaller.

About three-fourths of respondents said finding substitutes is a major problem. In 2021, 257 classes were canceled for lack of teachers.

Jennifer Johnson, a teacher of 29 years experience, introduces herself to her class of sixth-graders at West Carroll Middle School on Wednesday. It's her first year as a sixth-grade instructor after being a special education specialist last year. The room's lighting is tinted to accommodate special education students.

‘Getting out there’

Filling vacancies requires diligence, Katzenberger said.

First, the district presents itself as an entry point, hoping to attract recent graduates. Katzenberger attended job fairs at Illinois State University the past two years and the University of Illinois-Eastern Illinois University job fair the previous year. She also goes to a hiring opportunity in Sterling.

“I’m getting out there,” she said.

She then made use of the state’s return-to-work program, which allows retirees to re-enter the teaching ranks without jeopardizing their pension.

This provision lets retirees work through June 2024 if their subject matter or specialization is designated by the regional office of education as a shortage area. Two of West Carroll’s hires fall in this category.

The district also sweetened the salary pot with benefits to attract new teachers. It offers Blue Cross Blue Shield at 100% single coverage for support staff and teachers.

It signed an agreement with ISU to accept student teachers. It will get a social work intern through a deal with Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Jennifer Johnson has been a teacher for 29 years, the last few in special education. This year, however, she is taking on sixth grade in a full capacity at West Carroll.

In fact, when she was starting out, it was Illinois’ once-highly competitive job market that prompted her to pull up roots and go to Texas, where she taught in Houston for two decades.

She fears rural districts get a bad rap. She said a few years ago, when she returned to Illinois, others in the profession discouraged her from applying at West Carroll, saying that the small district wouldn’t provide support.

“I didn’t walk into an empty classroom,” she said. “It’s not grim. I’m very satisfied with this district. As for teaching materials and supplies, they have it.”

Enrollment, planning, mentoring

In small districts, early registration has become an essential tool in hiring. Knowing how many students it has for some classes, especially at the high school level, can determine staffing.

“We looked at our schedule,” Katzenberger said. “If we have a class under 10 students … we look at offering it every other year.”

West Carroll has done everything to encourage advance registration, including setting Aug. 7 as a deadline and promoting its online portal, which parents could access throughout the summer.

Katzenberg sent out reminders. The last notice was ahead of the final weekend of summer break.

Several teachers said the availability of nearby day care was important.

One of the biggest problems across northwest Illinois, however, is available housing.

“There just isn’t enough,” Kantzenberger said.

The last U.S. Census showed occupancy of existing homes was above 90% in many areas of the region. Carroll County was closer to 80%, although the county had 278 fewer homes than in 2010.

To that end, Kantzenberger also serves on a community board that tries to address the problem of available housing – both for prospective teachers or newly-hired employees at the federal penitentiary in Thompson.

The district joined a coaching and mentoring program offered by the Illinois Education Association to provide new teachers with coaches and mentors – the in-house mentor is paid a stipend while the association provides a one-on-one virtual coach.

Special education teacher Tracy Siegner is gleefully surprised when one of her students expresses a desire to become a better reader and the whole class breaks out into spontaneous supportive applause during her first day teaching at West Carroll Middle School on Wednesday.

A new year

Tracy Siegner is a new teacher at West Carroll. She had been a paraprofessional in nearby Eastland before deciding to get her degree.

For family reasons, she wanted to stay in northwest Illinois. She could cast her line anywhere with her special education certification. She said she someday hopes to teach abroad.

When she introduced herself to her new class on Wednesday, she asked students what their goals were. One child said they just wanted to be a better reader, to which the other students broke out in applause.

Siegner briefly was caught off guard, but she beamed at his response and praised the students for supporting their classmate.

Time will test her, but in that moment she had a connection – one that would not have been made had the position been left empty.

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.