Solving Arkansas' Teacher Shortage: West Memphis Forever
(WEST MEMPHIS, Arkansas) - West Memphis is the eyes of the Arkansas Delta, centered on the banks between Blytheville to the North, and Helena-West Helena to the South: right at home on the Arkansas share of the Mississippi River.
West Memphis can’t hear the music from across the water, from over there on Beale Street, over there in Big Sister, Tennessee. But West Memphis isn’t trying to.
The hometowners, the here-and-proud, are just that: they are West Memphis through and through. They are West Memphis forever.
“Once you’re a Blue Devil, you’re always a Blue Devil,” Kayla Flowers explains. “That’s my West Memphis experience.”
“I’m born-and-raised (in West Memphis),” adds Charlotte Smith. “It’s a family environment. I know a lot of places probably say that, but it’s real here. It’s real.”
Flowers and Smith are job-embedded teacher candidates working in the West Memphis School District. After a series of up-and-down experiences looking for the right pathway to a bachelor’s degree, they are both now getting paid for their coursework, all while earning professional capital towards their future.
In helping themselves, they are also helping their community, and doing so during an hour of great need. They attend Reach University, which offers fully remote, job-embedded pathways to a bachelor’s degree and/or teacher certification. Flowers and Smith, by getting paid to earn their degree, are aiding in their hometown’s response to teacher shortages, an issue nationwide, but especially so in communities like West Memphis: especially in the Delta.
“We are very much the heart of the Delta here,” explains Sheila Grissom, an Assistant Superintendent with the West Memphis School District. “If there’s a problem nationwide, like teacher shortages, the South is going to feel it worse, and the Delta is going to feel it even worse than that. There is simply too much poverty here for us to have this many,” she says, waving a sheet of paper.
Grissom is referring to the number of certified teaching vacancies she needs to fill before next Fall. 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’s research also reported that education has not kept pace with inflation, and that teachers are now making 6% less than they did ten years ago.
Fortunately, West Memphis keeps its own close to heart. Smith has come aboard as a paraprofessional at Bragg Elementary School, while Flowers serves as a credit recovery facilitator at the Academies of West Memphis, formerly known as West Memphis High School, where both Smith and Flowers graduated.
“I can understand why there’s a shortage,” Flowers says. “I’ve seen the hardships, even some of the dislike towards teachers. I don’t understand that. Who teaches the lawyers, the firefighters, the NBA players? It all starts with teachers.” Flowers is passionate about her chosen profession; it’s impossible to miss: “Nobody comes in here to get a check. If you think this is easy, do not get into it. Not everybody can care for 25 kids at the same time. It’s a profession for compassion, for empathy, and heart.”
“It’s a totally different generation now,” Smith adds. “It can be draining at times. But watching kids grow and learn? I can’t speak for others, but it’s a feeling you just can’t ignore.”
Cassie Adams, the principal at Bragg Elementary, understands that the challenges unique to West Memphis affect its ability to find and keep the teachers it desperately needs. Crime and poverty play a major factor. Additionally, Adams feels the pandemic played a role, showing teachers a life outside of the classroom over a period of extended time. The district is also faced with increasing financial burdens, and West Memphis could soon lose the pay advantage it previously had over smaller districts.
“The Delta is crime driven because of poverty, and we are not country-Delta, we are inner city-Delta,” Adams explains. “Attendance is a huge issue for us. Many of our students take care of their younger siblings, and they have family members who don’t make school a priority because they feel like it didn’t do anything for them. So it’s a vicious cycle.”
“On top of that, you had teachers coming back from Covid,” Adams continues. “They got used to a different life during that time. Plus, you can go a lot of places now and make good money without a degree, and people get burnt out doing this. We saw that shift. So now here we are: at the heart of turnover and interview season, and we are faced with not finding anyone for some of these openings, with literally having a room full of kids and no one to be in there with them.”
That said, West Memphis sees an opportunity in turning to its own community for help, to people like Flowers. She said it herself: once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil. “When someone asks, ‘What’s your Why’, this is my ‘Why’: this is it right here,” she says. “I never want a child to feel left out, or alone, like there’s no one there for them.”
Through the pay increase that comes with a bachelor’s degree, along with the removal of the barriers that usually stand in the way of that process, the district can use apprentice programs like those offered at Reach to recruit directly from its school families. It can grow its own teaching pipeline: a stable pipeline.
The apprenticeship degree model offers the same upward mobility as a traditional bachelor’s degree, but it does so at a fraction of the cost. With tuition at just $75 per month, neither Flowers or Smith are accruing any debt in the pursuit of their new careers. They are also earning professional capital, already working the jobs they’ll soon be able to hold as certified teachers.
“Now I don’t have to pick between work, school, and being a mother,” Smith explains. “Plus, student loans are terrible. I hope and pray my kids choose a program like this someday.”
“I don’t know why this wasn’t thought of sooner, honestly,” Flowers adds. “It is profound. I am very thankful for the opportunity to be a Reach candidate. With other choices, I would have had to stop working to finish school. I wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills.”
For Grissom, new and effective solutions aren’t thought experiments that remain abstract; they are needed in the reality of here and now. The district is already putting a freeze on hiring new instructional coaches: a crucial, gap-closing role dedicated to helping students that have fallen behind in math and reading. However, Grissom just had to double her workforce devoted to Dyslexia. The law demanded it, and that now means sacrifices elsewhere. She’s playing Whack-a-Mole. She has to rob Peter so she can pay Paul.
Grissom’s career in education started at Wedlock Elementary, a small, rural school in nearby Edmondson, a school that was forced to close in 2013 due to its scarce population. She has served as an educator for over thirty years. Grissom is sensitive to the needs of her district, to the challenges facing West Memphis. Of course she is. She’s hoping that greater awareness can result in populating the positions she needs to fill: “We need one of those award show spotlights for this, like one of those big ones they have out in Los Angeles or something,” she explains. “That’s us right now: we need to find some people.”
Flowers and Smith are doing their part, themselves a pair of flashing lights. They could have followed the music, could have crossed the bridge over into Memphis. They could have headed west over to Little Rock, gone-up to Fayetteville, or even made their way down to Texarkana, maybe. But West Memphis is home, and home is where they want to serve, and to spread the word: the kids need more help.
“I know we have interested parents, for sure,” Smith says. “They just want to know where to begin.”
“We always welcome people back,” Flowers adds, “with open arms. If you want to see our future grow and be great, this is the place. Like I said, it’s here: this is it. Once you’re a Blue Devil, you’re always a Blue Devil.”
It’s like that in West Memphis, and the added sentiment now is that it should pay to be proud of where you’re from: to want to give back where it counts the most.