A Colorado experiment aims to expand the teacher pipeline and stem turnover

A teacher, facing a bulletin board, talks with two young students.
This year, 35 prospective teachers and seven districts, including Aurora, Adams 12, and Durango, are participating in the project. (Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat)

Teacher vacancies and hiring headaches are a fact of life in many Colorado school districts these days. 

A Denver-based nonprofit hopes to relieve some of those pressures by expanding its alternative licensure program and contracting new teachers to stay in their districts for three years. 

The Public Education & Business Coalition’s plans are part of a new initiative that relies on “pay for success” financing, a funding mechanism in which outside investors cover up-front costs and get paid back later with public money if certain goals are met. The three-year project aims to reduce teacher turnover and cut the costs associated with recruiting, onboarding, and training new teachers. 

This year, 35 prospective teachers and seven districts, including Aurora, Adams 12, and Durango, are participating in the project. Over three years, coalition leaders seek to mint 335 new teachers, including a significant number of teachers of color.

“The fear is there’s more teachers that are going to leave the profession than are entering the profession,” said Brett Johnson, chief financial officer for the Aurora district. “We’re leveraging this pay for success model in hopes to recruit and retain quality teachers.” 

Pay for success financing — also called social impact bonds — has gained traction nationwide in the last decade as a way to pay for social programs that yield long-term dividends but are expensive to launch. Typically, if such projects don’t generate the hoped-for savings or meet certain metrics, outside investors lose some or all of their money. 

A recent project that paid for housing and support for chronically homeless Denver residents was particularly successful, reducing jail, detox, and emergency room costs. One investor in that project, Northern Trust, is one of three investors in the coalition’s project. The Gates Family Foundation and the Denver Foundation are the other two. 

Chalkbeat receives financial support from the Gates Family Foundation. 

The coalition’s long-standing teacher training program is one of dozens of alternative teacher preparation programs in Colorado. Such programs typically provide on-the-job training for prospective teachers who already have bachelor’s degrees. The program doesn’t charge tuition, but participants have to cobble together living expenses during their training year. 

The three investors will provide $1.4 million to cover costs associated with the year-long teacher residency program. The residency places participants in Colorado classrooms under the supervision of an experienced teacher and provides outside-the-classroom training. 

Normally, school districts pay up to $18,000 to place one of the coalition’s teacher residents in their classrooms. Under the pay for success initiative, districts pay only about one-third of that amount up front. If the resident completes the three-year commitment — a year of training plus two years teaching in a district classroom — the district will make another payment. If the resident leaves before completing three years, the district is off the hook. 

Johnson said part of the appeal is that the model shifts the initial financial risk of teacher turnover off the district and onto the project funders. Plus, he said the lower up-front costs of placing teachers in training make it easier for districts to scale up placement numbers. 

Evan Kennedy, the coalition’s senior director of policy and strategic initiatives, said his group talked with school districts over two years to figure out what they needed from the project. 

District leaders told the coalition, “If you can help us retain these teachers for three years, we have a lot of confidence that we can keep them for the long term,” he said. 

In addition to defraying school districts’ up-front costs, the pay for success project will pay teacher residents a $5,000 incentive during their training year. That’s on top of state funding, scholarships, and other dollars that help teacher residents cover living expenses during training. Residents who don’t fulfill the three-year term will pay a financial penalty based on the amount of time completed.

Besides the 35 teacher residents participating in the project this year, the coalition has 51 other teacher residents. 

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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