Growing teacher shortage

Colorado’s rural districts struggle to fill teaching jobs

In this 2007 photo, Edison School kindergarteners head back to class in their 1922 school building (Photo by Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)

The school year is in its second week and your small district is short a second-grade teacher. What’s a rural superintendent to do? Coax a Nebraska teacher out of retirement.

Bret Miles did exactly that one year when he was superintendent of the 594-student Holyoke school district in northeastern Colorado, about 35 miles south of the Nebraska line.

Despite growing anxiety about teacher preparation programs producing fewer graduates, most large Front Range districts still can pick and choose when they fill teaching jobs.

That’s not the case in many of Colorado’s 147 rural districts, 109 of which are specifically designated as small rural, with fewer than 1,000 students each. The state has 178 total districts.

The issue will be in the spotlight Wednesday at the Capitol when the Senate Education Committee considers a bill that proposes several steps to help rural districts, including stipends for student teachers.

The sponsor, Sen. Nancy Todd, admits that Senate Bill 16-1004 won’t fix the problem. But the Aurora Democrat and retired teacher hopes it’s a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s a moral obligation,” she said.. “If we’re shortchange the children in our rural areas, it will have fallout statewide.”

By the numbers

Many superintendents tell stories similar to Miles’. Superintendent Sharon Green said because of a dearth of applicants her 132-student Revere district went a full school year without a music teacher.

“It’s a crisis,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Miles, now executive director of the Northeast Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said the longstanding challenge of finding teachers in math, science, special education and other specialties has grown more difficult.

The full scope of the rural teacher shortage is difficult to determine. No agency or advocacy group keeps statistics on how many teachers apply for rural jobs or how many positions go unfilled.

“We know we’re producing substantially fewer teachers than we were five years ago,” said Robert Mitchell, academic policy officer for educator preparation at the state Department of Higher Education “The first regions impacted by that are those districts in rural Colorado.”

Salaries, remoteness challenges for rural districts

Superintendents and state officials agree that the remoteness of many rural districts and relatively low salaries are key factors in the problem.

“It is my belief that there is one issue, and that issue is salary,” said Douglas Bissonette, superintendent of the 2,481-student Elizabeth school district.

Bissonette has studied teacher salaries and found that teachers in the largest, best-paying districts earn an average of about $58,000 year, compared to an average of $38,000 in the small, lowest-paying districts.

Miles added some teaching candidates turn down jobs because of a lack of jobs available for spouses.

To illustrate the salary problem, Merino Superintendent Rob Sanders often tells the story of a high school science teacher who quit in the middle of the school year for a job that paid twice as much. Her new post was at the state prison in Sterling.

What districts are doing

Rural districts welcome legislative interest in their plight but also are doing what they can to help themselves.

Some district cooperatives rural areas are preparing teachers in their own alternative programs. In some cases these BOCES are turning to aides and paraprofessionals already working in schools.The program in the Northeast BOCES trained 21 teachers last year.

Districts are casting a wide net. Miles is headed to Michigan later this year to recruit teachers for his 12 member districts. He’ll visit ive colleges in five days.

A few rural districts have hired teachers from outside the country.

A new grant-funded effort at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison is seeking to build connections between teacher prep programs and rural districts.

Most college and university education programs “really haven’t focused” on preparing rural teachers, the state’s Mitchell said.

Megan Quitter, rural education outreach coordinator for the Western State program, said she’s working to “establish a network of teacher prep programs and rural school districts, making sure students know about the benefits of rural teaching.”

What the bill proposes

Todd’s SB 16-104 proposes four initiatives:

  • Create one or more rural education centers at colleges and universities, extending the work started at Western State, whose grant runs for only 18 months.
  • Provide of stipends for prospective teachers who do their student teaching in rural districts.
  • Establish a “teacher cadet” programs in rural districts to encourage middle and high school students to consider teaching as a career.
  • Pay rural teachers who are pursuing National Board Certification or a master’s degrees necessary to teach concurrent enrollment classes.

Legislative staff haven’t prepared a cost estimate for the bill. But Capitol observers say the bill will need to cost less than $1 million for the bill to reach the governor’s desk in a tight budget year.

Todd’s modest bill is emblematic of the challenge Colorado lawmakers face when trying to respond to statewide education needs.

For instance, she noted, there’s no money available for bigger ideas like paying off student loans for teachers who move to rural districts.

“We’re not talking big, big money,” Todd said. “I’m very mindful of where our budget is.”

Lawmakers have taken some small steps for rural districts in recent sessions.

Last year the legislature approved an extra $10 million in per-student aid to such districts on top of the normal finance formula. A 2014 law gave rural districts some flexibility in meeting state paperwork requirements.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

Movers & shakers

Memphis native named superintendent of Aspire network’s local schools

PHOTO: Aspire Public Schools
Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job.

Manning will replace Allison Leslie, the founding superintendent of the charter network’s Memphis schools. She is leaving for Instruction Partners, an education consulting firm that works with school districts in Tennessee, Florida, and Indiana.

“I look forward to serving children and families in my hometown,” said Manning, who was previously Aspire’s associate superintendent, director of curriculum and instruction, outreach coordinator, and principal of its Aspire Hanley Elementary.

Aspire runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis.

Manning said he hopes to focus on Aspire’s role in supporting students outside the classroom and to launch a community advisory board, composed of parents and neighborhood residents, to “make sure that the community has a voice.”

“We know that we need to support our children in more than just academics,” he told Chalkbeat.

In Memphis, most students who attend Aspire schools come from low-income neighborhoods. At its four local schools, the charter group serves about 1,600 Memphis students.

Manning, who holds a doctorate in education, is a graduate of Memphis’ Melrose High School, which sits less than two miles from two Aspire schools. Before joining the network, he worked as a teacher and administrator in the Memphis City Schools and served as principal of Lanier Middle School, which closed in 2014 due to low enrollment.

In a statement, Leslie praised Manning’s commitment to the network’s students, saying,“I am looking forward to seeing Dr. Manning continue the great work we started together and make it even better.”

Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and runs 36 schools there. The charter network was recruited to Memphis to join the state-run district in 2013 — the organization’s only expansion outside of California.

In Memphis, Aspire opened two schools in 2013 and grew to three schools the following year. That’s when it opened Coleman Elementary under the state-run district, before switching course in 2016 and opening Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school under the local Shelby County Schools.

This year, the charter network applied with Shelby County Schools to open its second a middle school, in Raleigh, in 2019. Though the application was initially rejected, Manning it would be resubmitted in the coming weeks, before the district’s final vote in August.

The proposed middle school harkens back to a dispute between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its state turnaround school. If approved, the state could create a new school that would be under local oversight.

“We are deeply committed to our children and families,”  Manning said. “We’ve heard from our families that they want continuity in K–8th-grade in their child’s time in schools. We’re committed to that end.”