Colorado school districts rush to fill job openings before school starts

Two women stand in front of a job fair table staffed by a recruiter in a green shirt.
Marta Sanabria, left, collects information from the Kelly Education booth at Aurora Public Schools’ hiring fair Aug. 1. (Sara Martin / Chalkbeat)

There were stay-at-home mothers looking for work that matched their children’s school schedules, a former Starbucks barista who had tired of starting at 5 a.m., and a 60-year-old former Molly Maid employee who said housecleaning had become too much. 

All joined the bustle at an Aurora Public Schools job fair just a week before school was set to start and talked to recruiters about positions driving buses, working with preschoolers, preparing meals, or cleaning schools. 

In Colorado and nationwide, acute staffing shortages have made it harder for school districts to deliver basic services. But Aurora hiring representatives were upbeat about the prospect of filling vacancies in the 39,000-student district — if not by the first day of school on Aug. 8, soon after.

Travis Brown, a lead trainer with the district’s transportation department, said interest from candidates is higher this year than last.

“Are things still lean? Yeah, they are,” he said. “But there’s definitely a change in the number of folks who are coming out. Job fairs like this would have been desolate a year ago.” 

Last-minute hiring is nothing new for school districts. Many have faced shortages of special education, math, and science educators, mental health staff, and bus drivers for years. Last school year, 720 teaching positions and 570 classroom aide positions went unfilled across Colorado, according to data from the state’s annual educator shortage survey. Hundreds more jobs were filled through stopgap measures like hiring retired educators or long-term substitutes. 

Cynthia Cobb, Aurora’s early childhood education director, welcomed a steady stream of candidates to her table during the first hour of Tuesday’s job fair, taking down contact information and explaining the credentials needed to work with young children. Her department had 43 positions to fill, a combination of lead teacher and classroom aide jobs. 

Cobb said there are more vacancies than usual, because the district is adding 19 preschool classrooms this fall as part of the state’s new universal preschool program, which provides tuition-free classes to any 4-year-old whose family wants it. 

But like Brown, she said there’s more interest from job seekers, too. That’s due in part to a wage boost that has made Aurora more competitive with neighboring districts, such as Denver and Cherry Creek. Aurora’s starting pay for preschool aides is now $20 an hour, up from $14 last year. 

Noting that she received 75 applications through the job search website Indeed during the past week, she said, “It didn’t happen before.” 

To sweeten the deal, Cobb also let candidates know that she has grant money that can help them pay for early childhood education classes at the Community College of Aurora — on top of free courses the state is already covering as part of an effort to develop more early childhood teachers. 

Selena Canche, a mother of five, attended the fair to find something with more consistent hours than her part-time package delivery job through Amazon Flex. She hoped for work in one of the district’s cafeterias or early childhood classrooms. 

“Being able to work where my kids go to school is the goal,” she said. 

Renée Le Floch, the former house cleaner, left the fair with the promise of a job interview with the district’s nutrition department the next day. After years of physical work, she hoped to land something less taxing. Plus, she said, working around children is her dream.

At the booth for the district’s nutrition department — which is hiring for 50 positions — a poster advertised the starting wage at $13.80 an hour. But Bianca Mendoza, a staffing and marketing specialist for the district, quickly noticed it was out of date. The rate is now $15.26 an hour, she said. 

The job is fun, said Mendoza. “You get to love on those kids, feed them, hear their stories.” 

Monica Drees, the former barista, stopped by three tables at the fair, but said a nutrition services job was her top choice. It would offer flexible hours and let her capitalize on her experience in food service. 

Plus, she said, Mendoza “seemed really nice.”

“I can learn how to do a job,” Drees said, “but mostly I want to like my coworkers.”

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at Chalkbeat intern Sara Martin contributed to this report.

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