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Recruiting teachers to rural Colorado: Smaller classrooms and more freedom, but about that salary …

Shaundra Johns grew up in Aurora and worked for 11 years in metro Denver, but long imagined herself teaching in a rural community. She wanted the family feeling of a small town, the flexibility of a school district with less bureaucracy, and someday to own a goat.

That’s why the 29-year-old Metro State University student traveled last month from her home in Littleton to La Veta in southern Colorado for a three-day immersion experience for prospective rural teachers.

Johns and seven other participants, some still in school and some considering career changes, toured the town, met with district staff and students, and helped with floats for the district’s homecoming parade. One evening, they gathered with leaders of the 225-student district to eat dinner at Frankie’s Steak and Seafood, the nicest restaurant in town.

“I fell in love,” Johns said.

With many of Colorado’s rural school districts locked in a perennial struggle to fill teaching jobs, those four words are exactly what district administrators and organizers of the immersion trip want to hear.

In fact, introducing current and future teachers to the realities of rural teaching was precisely the point of the all-expenses-paid trip. It was part of a three-trip series organized by Colorado State University Pueblo and several partners, inspired by a similar teacher recruitment program used in Alaska.

Chelsea Wendorf, who visited La Veta as part of the rural teacher immersion program, helps in a third grade classroom.
PHOTO: Kathryn Allison
Chelsea Wendorf, who visited La Veta as part of the rural teacher immersion program, helps in a third grade classroom.

The immersion trips, launched last spring with a trip to the 548-student Huerfano district, and wrapping up later this month with one to the 133-student Manzanola district, are among a raft of recent initiatives aimed at beefing up rural teacher recruitment and retention in Colorado.

Other efforts include day-long bus trips to rural districts for students in teacher preparation programs, stipends for student teachers in rural districts and for rural teachers who want additional training, and “teacher cadet” programs to get rural high school students interested in teaching careers.

Teacher supply and demand in the U.S. is very much a local story, with some areas doing better than others. As the economy has improved and enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs has declined, both urban and rural districts have reported struggles to find qualified teachers.

Much of the work around rural teacher recruitment is taking place at the school or district level, or in partnership with teacher preparation programs, according to a June report from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks policy shifts and research.

A few other states in addition to Colorado have invested in the issue. In Minnesota, a new grant program provides student teaching stipends for low-income students and grants for licensed teachers who agree to teach in regions struggling to find qualified applicants. Mississippi introduced a loan repayment for teachers meeting certain qualifications who choose teach in geographic areas facing a shortage.

Last winter, Western State Colorado University hired Megan Quitter to be the state’s first rural education outreach coordinator. She serves as a connector of sorts between Colorado’s 147 rural districts and teacher preparation programs across the state.

Quitter’s position and the rural teacher immersion trips are paid for with federal grant money. Some of the other rural education initiatives are funded with $441,000 approved by the state legislature last spring.

Teacher preparation students visited McKinley Elementary in the Canon City district on a recent day-long bus trip to rural districts.
PHOTO: Megan Quitter
Teacher preparation students visited McKinley Elementary in the Canon City district on a recent day-long bus trip to rural districts.

Robert Mitchell, academic policy officer for teacher preparation at the Colorado Department of Higher Education, said the burst of recent rural education efforts helps, but represents only a short-term solution.

“There’s just a teacher shortage, period,” he said, noting a 30 percent decline in the number of college students attending teacher preparation programs in Colorado over the last six years.

“Any given year when people are looking for elementary teachers, there’s a good chance our rural districts will get zero applications for those jobs,” Mitchell said.

Still, he believes some of the best teaching in the state happens in rural communities, owing to their smaller, more intimate classrooms and willingness to experiment.

“Rural Colorado is the best-kept secret that we have,” Mitchell said.

Convincing a skeptic

When La Veta Superintendent Bree Lessar first heard the idea for the rural teacher immersion program, she thought it was ridiculous.

What makes a school district rural?

 

  • Districts are categorized as rural based on their size, student enrollment and distance from a large urban area.
  • Of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 109 are considered “small rural,” which means they have fewer than 1,000 students.
  • Another 38 are considered “rural,” which means they have 6,500 students or fewer.
  • Rural and small rural districts educate about 20 percent of Colorado students.

“I just really couldn’t see it working,” she said. “You’re going to bring in a dozen people from somewhere and make them have sleepovers?”

But the more Lessar thought about it, the more it made sense — especially since a grant would cover the costs. She knew it was important for prospective teachers to visit in person because small-town living isn’t for everyone.

One candidate she’d hired after an interview over Skype didn’t make it through the first year. Teacher fairs weren’t particularly effective, either, yielding just one or two hires in eight years.

Lessar, who grew up in rural Wyoming, has plenty of eventual vacancies to think about in her district. Seven of her 21 teachers are officially retired but work limited hours or will soon because of state retirement rules. The openings may be two or three years out, but she knows she needs to plan carefully to find a good fit.

Take the high school science teacher who has helped steer four of La Veta’s graduates to medical school over the last several years. Lessar wants the replacement to spend a year in the classroom with that teacher before she departs.

Overall, Lessar believes the immersion program was successful and with some tweaks could be a promising recruitment strategy. About half the participants expressed interest in officially applying, she said.

No sugarcoating

While immersion experiences like the one in La Veta are a chance for districts officials to highlight the benefits of the rural lifestyle — lower cost of living, close-knit communities and flexibility in the classroom — they are also frank about the downsides.

Student artwork extolls the benefits of Cotopaxi schools.
PHOTO: Megan Quitter
Student artwork extolls the benefits of Cotopaxi schools.

The dating pool is limited, housing is tricky in some communities and most of all, starting salaries are low.

In La Veta, base pay is $31,000. Mitchell said in some rural districts, it’s $25,000.

Money was the deal-breaker for Graham Carpenter, who went on the trip to La Veta. The 32-year-old Fort Collins resident runs a residential real estate company and applied to participate because his girlfriend at the time was exploring rural nursing.

Carpenter described the experience as “first-class,” but said at this stage in his life he can’t live on the salary.

“The pay is just killer,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind is going to take a pay cut or leave the Front Range to go down there.”

But asked if the opportunity would be more appealing if he was 22 and not 32, he said, “Yes, if I didn’t own property and I was younger, it probably would have made a difference.”

Johns, who barely cleared $25,000 a year working in child care centers, had a little different take on La Veta’s base salary.

“It’s not bad per se. It’s not great either,” she said. “You don’t go into education for the money.”

Still, state leaders believe mediocre pay is a big reason why fewer college students are seeking teaching degrees these days, a trend hurting districts of all sizes.

“If we could pay all our teachers $65,000 a year, my problems go away,” Mitchell said.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”