HELENA, ARK. — It's in places like this one - a hardscrabble town along the lower Mississippi - where America's pervasive teacher shortage is most acute.
A relatively poor delta community with teacher salaries to match, Helena, Ark., finds it difficult to recruit outsiders - and to retain them if they do come. Yet for $7-an-hour cashiers at Wal-Mart or card dealers at the casinos across the river, teaching is not only a step up, it is often the fulfillment of a dream.
Few of those cashiers and card dealers can afford to move to a university town to earn a degree. That has created a frustrating gap between schools needing teachers and potential educators in their own backyards who have no access to training.
Out of the frustration, though, has come a solution that may be applicable nationwide: Recruit potential teachers locally, and bring the training to them.
Teach for Arkansas is a state-of-the-art program that beams teacher-education classes, via compressed video, from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to classrooms at Phillips Community College in Helena. All 11 of the first set of trainees, who graduated last spring, have found local teaching jobs. The program was such a success that it has since served two more groups of students.
"It's a model for what a college of education in a land-grant university - and even those universities in urban areas - can do to increase the number of teachers available to local school districts," says Roderick McDavis, provost at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
"It's a common-sense approach to a complex issue that begins to solve a critical problem for our nation - the shortage of teachers," adds Dr. McDavis, who is also the past president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
For Sandra Hughes, the program has done nothing less than change her life. She graduated from high school in 1983 and went on to community college, but was married during her first year there. She never earned her bachelor's degree. She had children and went to work, eventually ending up at the local Wal-Mart. She also held jobs as a teacher's assistant and a secretary to the principal of Wahl Elementary School here in Helena.
Ms. Hughes heard about Teach For Arkansas soon after she was divorced, and despite having four children and tending to an ill mother, she knew that the time to act was now.
She did, and three years later she was hired as a teacher at Wahl Elementary. "It's a lifelong dream come true," Hughes says. "From the first grade, I wanted to become a teacher. And on top of it all, I was able to stay here; I didn't have to move somewhere to go through the training and become one." After her first year of teaching, she was named Teacher of the Year for the entire school district.
"She's doing an excellent job," says Wahl Elementary principal Ernest Simes. "She submitted a proposal in May - ideas for doing things better. I incorporated every one of them."
Mr. Simes says he started this fall with 22 teachers instead of the 24 he needs.
Although it doesn't sound like much of a shortage, the two openings equate to nearly 10 percent of the necessary staff and have forced him to increase classes to an average of 27 students, one below the state maximum of 28. He says he has no doubt that the school would be down three teachers and likely in trouble with the state if it hadn't hired Hughes.
"The program is helping a lot of people - the new teachers, their families - and in turn it's helping the whole community," Simes says. "It's not that people in this community didn't have the ability to be teachers; they didn't have the opportunity. This program is giving them the opportunity."
Although Teach For Arkansas appears to be unique, there are some variations on the theme. A program in Savannah, Ga., seeks out school employees - whether they be teacher's aides, cafeteria hands, or maintenance workers - trains them while they continue to work, and then places them in teaching positions in the same school district.
Iowa and the University of Nevada in Las Vegas have also experimented with the concept.
The Arkansas program has attracted all kinds of people. Secretaries at Phillips Community College signed up. So did a local school board member.
For administrators looking to make the program permanent or to expand it, there are limitations. Although the effort works well for K-6 training, Arkansas and other states require that high school teachers have special training in science, math, or other subjects. That reality would likely require distance-training for secondary teachers to be specialized.
Despite its success, the future of Teach for Arkansas may not be secure. Funding comes primarily from private sources (the SBC Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation) rather than from the state through the university system.
Certainly there is support for it in the local community: The original commitment was for two groups of students, but the Helena school district successfully lobbied for a third.
The chancellor of the University of Arkansas has mandated that the system's total population grow substantially, an ambition echoed at many other state campuses. Distance-education programs such as Teach for Arkansas appear to be promising vehicles for such growth.
Dorothy Spencer is another Teach for Arkansas success story. A lifelong resident of Helena, she dropped out of high school in 1974, earned her GED in 1983, and for years worked as a teacher's aide in a local middle school - all the while harboring the dream of becoming a special-ed teacher
"A couple of my friends commuted to Pine Bluff [two hours away] about five years ago to get their teaching degrees," says Ms. Spencer, who is in her first year of the program. "I wanted to join them, but we're raising three children and we have two foster children also, and it just wasn't feasible along with working all day."
On the evenings when she goes straight from work to class, her high-school-age son comes home and watches his siblings. She says her mother always pushed her to go back to college. "In my teens and early 20s, I just wasn't ready for it," she says. "But I never lost the desire to be a teacher. And now - I pray - it's actually going to happen."