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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.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”