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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.

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation. 

Read Chicago’s full response below.



on the move

Lack of transportation, conflicting deadlines put school choice out of reach for some, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

More Colorado students use school choice to opt into traditional district-run schools than use it to attend charter schools. Those who do so are more likely to be white and middle- or upper-class than their peers. And transportation continues to be a barrier for students who want to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

Those are the findings of a report on choice and open enrollment in the traditional public school sector put out by Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group that supports greater access to school choice.

The report, “Open Doors, Open Districts,” looked at the roughly 49,800 Colorado students who attended school in a district other than the one in which they resided during the 2016-17 school year and another 95,600 who used school choice within the 12 largest districts in the state. Together, these 145,400 students make up roughly 16 percent of all Colorado students. Another 13 percent of state students attend charter schools.

Since 1990, the School Choice Act has allowed students to enroll in any public school they want, without paying tuition, provided there is room — and that the school provides the services that student needs, a sticking point for many students who require special education services.

The number of students using this system to attend school in another district increased 58 percent over 10 years to 49,800 in 2016. Roughly 6,000 of those students attend multi-district online schools.

The students taking advantage of inter-district open enrollment are more likely to be white than Colorado students as a whole — 58 percent are white compared with 54 percent of all students. They’re also less likely to come from low-income families (36 percent, compared with 42 percent of all students), to speak a language other than English at home (8 percent compared with 14 percent statewide), or to have a disability (8 percent compared with 11 percent).

“It is important to understand these differences so that policy leaders and educators can work to ensure that open enrollment opportunities are more accessible for all Colorado families,” the report said. “The underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino students and English learners suggests there may be some unmet needs in Spanish-speaking communities around inter-district choice — either in information, accessibility, or appropriate services for students.”

The report highlights two major barriers to more students using school choice.

Most districts don’t have the kind of common enrollment system that Denver pioneered or that Jeffco is rolling out each year. Most districts require parents to turn in paperwork at a particular school. Not only do districts not share the same deadlines as each other, often different schools in the same district have different deadlines.

The other is transportation. 

“Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution,” the report said. In one rural district, a group of parents banded together and hired their own school bus to take students to another district.

A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, would have addressed both issues, encouraging the creation of more consistent deadlines across the state and allowing districts to cross boundaries to provide transportation. That bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House after some school districts said it would set the stage for larger, wealthier districts to poach students.

The transportation provision was later added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the session, a move that led to a lawsuit in which a judicial decision is pending.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and it’s not clear how any attempts to expand school choice would fare. Both school choice and charter schools have enjoyed bipartisan but not universal support in Colorado.

By highlighting the prominence of traditional public schools in how Colorado students use the choice system, advocates hope to separate choice and the popular idea that parents should be able to find the school that best meets their child’s needs from the more divisive debate about charter schools, which critics see as siphoning scarce dollars from other schools while not serving all students.

The report recommends developing more consistency between and within districts, providing more information to parents, and removing barriers to transportation.

Districts with higher ratings, which are determined primarily by results on standardized tests, tend to get more students than those with lower ratings, but some districts, particularly in the Denver metro area, send and receive large numbers of students, reflecting that parents and students are making decisions at the school rather than at the district level.

Metro area districts that have struggled to raise student achievement are losing large numbers of students to other districts. A quarter of students who live in Adams 14, whose low test scores prompted a state order for external management, attended school in neighboring districts in 2016. In Westminster, which just came off a state watchlist for low-performing schools this year, that number was 29 percent.

Ready Colorado found no clear relationship between districts that spent more per student and districts that attracted more students — but districts with higher enrollment get more money from the state for each student, creating incentives to compete for students.

Read the full report here.