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  • Writer's pictureReach University

Solving Arkansas' Teacher Shortage: Welcome to Manila

(MANILA, Arkansas) - On approach from the South, the local Sonic drive-in welcomes the open road into Manila, Arkansas. Highway 77 runs into town with all the yellow and green of open, row-crop Mississippi County. Southworth Manufacturing, the world’s biggest producer of work lifts and pallet loaders, waves at cars from the other side of the highway.

The intersection marks the right-hand turn onto Fleeman Street, over to the farm property that sits in front of Justin Veach Elementary School. The Lions Club has a sign by the road there.

Welcome to Manila, it says, a Good Place to Live: Progressive. Friendly. Growing.

Back at the school, principal Sherry Mason has a problem in one hand and a possible solution in the other. Mason, she’s proud to say, is originally from Dyess, Johnny Cash’s hometown, about 30 minutes south of Manila. It’s an especially beautiful Monday in early May, and the staff at Justin Veach is having lunch delivered, of course they are, from Sonic: “It’s very Arkansas,” Mason says. “We love it.”

In education, Spring means hiring season, and school administrators like Mason are feeling the pressure of a growing national teacher shortage. In a 2022 study, the National Education Association indicated that the ratio of hires to job openings is now .5, meaning the country is only replacing half of the teachers it’s losing. The NEA also reported that education has not kept pace with inflation, and that teachers are now making 6% less than they did ten years ago.

“When I first came to Manila, back before Covid, if I had one opening that meant I’d get around thirty applications,” Mason explains. “Now? I'll be lucky if I get three.”

Mason, the state of Arkansas, and schools all over America are looking for creative solutions to address an urgent need. On one hand, the teacher shortage is a very real problem, but on the other? Mason serves in Manila, and Manila serves its kids: “This town shows up in droves,” explains Robin Wilson, a job-embedded teacher candidate at the elementary school. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“The family thing is very real here,” Shonda Wortham adds. A lifelong Manila resident, Wortham is also receiving college credit to learn on the job. She and Wilson attend Reach University, an accredited, non-profit, and remote institution meant to serve remote needs. Teacher candidates have the flexibility of getting paid while earning their degree/certification, and, at $75 per month, they can afford to do so without accruing any debt.

Programs like those offered at Reach enable communities like Manila to grow their own teaching talent directly from the pipeline they know best: the community itself. These are the Manila Lions: Progressive. Friendly. Growing.

There was a time when Wortham had to balance substitute teaching with evening hours down at the Sonic. Now she’s at the school full-time, back in the hallways of her childhood.

“My desk was right there,” Wortham explains, pointing at an empty spot in what is now her classroom. “This was my 5th grade science classroom. Robin’s room was my English class.”

Justin Veach Elementary has evolved over the years, but some things remain unchanged. Wortham loves, for example, showing new students her old locker. “The kids think I’m ancient!” she explains. She also appreciates the opportunity to work alongside familiar faces: she now gets to teach with those who taught her.

“These are people I’ve known my entire life, since Kindergarten,” Wortham explains. “I love that dynamic. It almost feels like I’ve turned into a butterfly here or something. That’s how I see it.”

Wilson, conversely, is not from Manila. Her family migrated after her husband was transferred as part of the booming steel industry in Northeast Arkansas. Originally from Jonesboro, a little less than an hour west of Manila, Wilson is a mother of three with quite a schedule on her plate (“busy is an understatement,” she explains). She had convinced herself that the move to Manila, from big city to small town, meant pursuing a bachelor's degree was out of the question.

However, after taking a job as a substitute teacher, Wilson was quickly identified as having a real talent for working with kids. She soon became a secretary at the school, and now works as a paraprofessional/intervention specialist.

“I never saw this for myself, not at all,” Wilson says. “I thought I’d never go back to school, not with three kids. But this (Reach) program is made just for me. I’m the model to a ‘T’: I’m the busy mom. Manila is perfect for this, too. It’s such a small town, and I’m not used to that. I’m used to there being a Wal-Mart less than 30 minutes away. So I feel like I lucked out just getting to know some people through my kids going here. I loved subbing, and my principal at the time saw that I could handle working with the students.”

Wortham and Wilson enjoy the collaborative nature of their Reach experience, working together in the day while also attending similar courses in the evenings.

“There’s probably a line on the floor now from us walking back-and-forth to each other,” Wortham explains with a laugh.

“We both kind of struggle with the same things,” Wilson adds. “It’s definitely nice to be able to vent with somebody and share successes with somebody.”

Manila is expected to see steady population growth as the steel industry continues to thrive. So as more and more families like the Wilsons come to town, the pipeline Mason needs to fill her job openings is only going to get bigger.

Southeast of Manila, in Osceola, Big River Steel recently secured the first sustainable steel certification in North America, one of only 20 sites globally to meet the freshly agreed-upon worldwide standard. A new General Motors contract followed shortly thereafter: they want better steel, steel that can be recycled endlessly and without degradation, steel made with 75% fewer emissions than traditional methodologies can offer. Progressive. Friendly. Growing.

So Northeast Arkansas is no stranger to new ideas. “I have a custodian I’m talking to right now,” Mason says. “We’re talking about her taking the paraprofessional test. And I’ve already told her that my expectations won’t end there. She’s as smart as a whip.”

That’s Manila: small, yes, but undeniably special. “Blink and you’ll miss it,” Wortham explains. It’s a place where caterpillars turn into butterflies, where tomorrow’s steel is being made today, and where the lifts will take you as high as you want to go. Welcome to Manila, the sign reads: A Good Place to Live.

Shonda Wortham (left) and Robin Wilson (right) of Manila's Justin Veach Elementary

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