help wanted

What a dearth of teachers means for a school in a one-stoplight Colorado town

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

OTIS — Late last spring, after five of her two dozen teachers resigned with no replacements in sight, Superintendent Kendra Anderson reassured her school’s anxious principal that everything would be fine.

Then she walked the 25 feet between their two offices, sat down at her desk and said to herself: “Oh, crap.”

Anderson remembered a time — and not that long ago — when she could pick out a six-year veteran from a pile of resumes whenever she had an unexpected teaching vacancy.

“I don’t have that luxury anymore,” she said this summer, recalling the desperate situation she was in to replace a fourth of the teaching staff of the rural K-12 school in just a few months.

Anderson’s urgent need for teachers for her 230 students — half of them living in poverty in this one-stoplight Colorado town on the Eastern Plains — offers a window into how rural schools like hers are grappling with a dearth of teachers.

Otis’s challenges to keep and attract teachers are felt across the state. Low taxes make it nearly impossible to offer a competitive salary; one retired Otis teacher suggested she could make more money waiting tables. Increased regulations and unfunded mandates from the state have made the work nearly unbearable, educators say. And the school’s distance from the Front Range keep some urban solutions such as long-term substitutes or Teach For America corps out of their classrooms.

On the ground, the biggest challenge for superintendents like Anderson is the need to protect students from the most damaging impacts of the shortage, even as many of them would benefit from more resources, not fewer.

“The one thing that keeps me up at night is how we go years with some of our rural schools not having a math teacher,” said Robert Mitchell, the former director of educator preparation at the department of higher education. “These kids out here deserve the same opportunity as the kids in Boulder Valley. It’s not acceptable that we have vacancies and zero people apply.”

The problem is so pronounced that state education officials, at the legislature’s behest, fanned out across Colorado this summer — including a stop in Otis — to examine ways to turn around a shortage that is most severe in the state’s rural areas.

A plan informed by this statewide tour, which was recently completed, is due to state legislators by December.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, discusses the teacher shortage at the state’s town hall at the Otis school. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

No overflow

“Everything has to change” whenever a teacher leaves, Michelle Patterson, Otis’s principal said. The ripple effects, especially in areas with small staffs, are significant.

When the school’s agriculture teacher left this spring, administrators had to find a new teacher to take over his class sponsorship duties, which included helping students raise money for projects and providing them with emotional support through high school.

No one knew which conferences to register the Future Farmers of America club for, or which hotels to stay at when they went.

The district also had to hire a new bus driver, because the retired teacher, a 21-year veteran, had done that, too.

“It’s more than just that instruction for that content area that leaves us,” Superintendent Anderson said. “It’s the relationship with the students they developed over time. It’s the training we’ve given them that’s lost.”

The teacher shortage is both an old and new problem for rural schools.

“We’ve had a teacher shortage in rural Colorado since the 1970s,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “But we used to be able to get overflow from the metro area. Now, there’s no overflow.”

Since 2010, there’s been a 24 percent drop in graduates from the traditional teacher prep programs at the state’s colleges and universities. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment to those programs.

Alternative programs, such as residency programs, have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. However, those programs produce far fewer teachers than traditional programs and can’t keep up with demand. According to the state department of education, the state’s public schools employ more than 53,000 teachers.

The shortage is not evenly distributed across all classrooms. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

Officials believe a variety of factors are contributing to the shortage. The profession perceives that it is undervalued, and the pay in many communities does not cover basic costs of living. And as poverty rises, the scope of the job is expanding; students are coming to school with more trauma that educators must mitigate before they can even begin to teach phonics or subtraction.

Rural schools face additional challenges attracting new teachers away from urban centers.

Housing is in short supply — so much so that some school districts are building their own housing for teachers.

And while the cost of living might seem lower in rural areas, “gas, groceries and health insurance all are more expensive,” Anderson said. “We travel a long way to the grocery store, to work. The nearest Walmart is 50 miles away.”

It can also be lonely, especially for recent college graduates without any family nearby.

Caitlin Evans is Otis’s new high school English teacher. She sits in her barren classroom before the start of the school year. Evans was issued an emergency license so she could teach. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A tale of two Otis teachers

Peggy Allen was one of the five Otis teachers to leave the classroom this spring.

Allen, who taught English, began her career in Otis as a secretary. After 17 years of running the school district’s office, she went to college to become a teacher.

“I loved teaching,” she said as she finished her lunch in Mama’s, Otis’s single restaurant, which also serves as its de facto town square. “You build a personal relationship with everyone at the school and in town. Everybody knows your business — and needs. We take care of each other.”

But after 12 years in the classroom, the 65-year-old decided to retire.

“I saw younger people with vigor and energy, and I thought: ‘I don’t have that anymore,’” she said.

Increased state regulations also became a burden. “I didn’t love jumping through all the hoops,” she said.

To find a replacement for Allen, Anderson reached out to a national network of principals and school officials she’s built through the years.

One woman who Anderson met at a conference several years ago had a daughter, Caitlin Evans, who had moved to a town 40 miles east of Otis. Evans, 33, had been teaching at Morgan Community College and was interested in switching to high schoolers.

Evans grew up in Brighton, a blue collar suburb of Denver. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Colorado. She remembers feeling far behind some of her fellow freshmen who attended East Coast prep schools.

Evans was excited about better preparing rural students for college to compete with their urban peers.

“If I can be a bridge for them, that’s a good thing,” she said.

But Evans had a newborn and no teaching license. So Anderson went to work helping her find childcare and working with state education officials to issue Evans an emergency license.

The state this year has issued 30 emergency licenses, which allow individuals to teach without meeting some state requirements.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, earlier this year sponsored a bill that would have allowed rural school districts like Otis to waive out of the state’s licensing practices all together. It was an idea that was backed by the Rural School Alliance but faced staunch opposition from the state’s teachers union. That opposition forced Wilson to spike his own bill.

Licensing reform, an issue that has vexed lawmakers and the governor alike, is likely to come up as the state education and higher education departments move forward with their plan to curb the shortage. But Superintendent Anderson is wary.

“I don’t want to give the perception that it’s easier to be a teacher than any other profession,” she said.

Otis school leaders were able to fill all of their vacancies, in part because Evans was issued an emergency license. However, it’s only good for one academic year. Anderson is already worrying about how to keep Evans in the classroom next year.

Farm equipment sit outside the Otis school, which is sandwiched between a Baptist church and a wheat farm. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

“We just need the resources”

More than 40 people showed up to the Otis school, which sits between a Baptist church and a corn, wheat and millet farm, for the state’s town hall on the teacher shortage.

In the audience were several members of the Otis community, including two school board members. There were executives from Denver-based education nonprofits. Educators from other Eastern Plains communities such as a principal from Julesburg and teachers from Yuma also attended.

State officials pleaded with the audience to focus on solutions — especially low-cost solutions. That doesn’t mean salary increases are off the table, the state officials said. It just means that everyone knows that teachers in the low tax state of Colorado could make a lot more money yet still trail far behind national average salaries.

This school year will be the first Otis teachers see a pay increase since the Great Recession. The starting salary will be $31,666. The average salary for an Otis teacher is $36,468, administrators said. And the highest paid teacher, a long time veteran, earns $46,258.

Part of the reason why the school district was able to afford the raises out of its $3.4 million budget was because of a rare savings in health care costs.

Anderson called it a gamble.

As the town hall began to wind down, Shea Smith, the Otis guidance counselor, snuck out and returned to her office, where she was preparing for the first day of school.

She and another teacher, Tenaly Bleak, reflected on the intersection of the teacher shortage and the changing demographics of their students.

As it becomes increasingly expensive to live along the Front Range, families are seeking low-cost housing on the plains. Since 2011, the school’s free or reduced-price lunch rate, a measure of poverty, has nearly doubled to 56 percent. Last year, the school enrolled its first homeless student. And there’s a good chance the school will need to hire a second special education teacher because a few new students with special needs enrolled this summer.

Smith, who has been in the Otis school for nine years, remembers the last time the school tried to hire a special education teacher. The job remained vacant for three years until the school’s leadership decided to take the job posting down and just do without.

As poverty has risen in Otis, teachers have taken on another role: caretaker.

“Somedays, the most you can do is love them and feed them and make them feel safe, and hope you can get a little reading in, and a little math in,” Smith said.

It’s unclear how student performance has shifted as poverty has increased in Otis. Poor students historically do not score as highly as their more affluent peers. Not enough Otis students are taking the state’s test for the state education department to report the results and provide a quality rating. 

The role poverty is playing in the classroom and the stress it has put on educators has been highlighted by Education Commissioner Katy Anthes.

Teachers are reporting to the department that “they’re spending more time on management and organization and meeting the basic needs of students than they ever have before,” Anthes told the State Board of Education at its August meeting.

So what can the state do to keep teachers from fleeing Otis and other rural school districts?

Bleak said more support would go a long way. For instance, she suggested, establishing a special fund for school supplies and candy that teachers can hand out would save her $100 a month, she guessed.

“We care,” she said. “We want to do the best job possible. We just need the resources.”

An intersection in Otis, Colorado. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology. 

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.