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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.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”