PHOTO CREDIT: MEMED ÖZASLAN/STOCK.ADOBE.COM
As the 2021-22 year came to an end, Nikki Johnson and Abby Pettinger were looking for teachers for their tiny southeastern Colorado school districts that combined serve fewer than 100 students. Both knew the challenges that were ahead.
“There’s a huge advantage to living in a small community, but when you’re trying to recruit teachers and you tell them it is 20 miles to the nearest small grocery store and an hour to the nearest Wal-Mart, that can be a hard sell,” says Johnson, superintendent of the 34-student Campo School District. It is located nine miles north of the Oklahoma border.
That distance, combined with starting salaries that are thousands of dollars below the national average, forced Johnson and Pettinger to get creative. As a result, the Vilas and Campo districts are sharing three teachers this school year—one each in history, math, and English.
“It came out of necessity, but it also is an opportunity to see how this can work,” says Pettinger, who is acting superintendent and principal in Vilas, which has 65 students in grades pre-k through 12. “We’re looking for ways to bring more resources to our districts, and we’re trying to do it innovatively so we can meet our students’ needs.”
Teacher and staffing shortages, especially in small and rural districts, are not a new phenomenon in Colorado or the rest of the nation. But, as educators and researchers note, the problem for rural schools has been exacerbated by growing vacancies in suburban and urban districts and a steady decline in the number of students enrolling in teacher education programs nationwide.
“There’s been a teacher shortage in rural schools in Colorado for as long as I’ve worked in education, but now there’s a shortage in urban and suburban areas as well,” says Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “Rural schools in our state are at a crisis point.”
Dave Slothower, superintendent of the 445-student Calhan School District east of Colorado Springs, says it’s not uncommon for vacancies to be posted for six or seven months without receiving a single application.
“Colorado Springs used to get 80 applications for a single position. Now they get 10,” says Slothower. “We get zero. We don’t have a shortage. A teacher exodus is what we’re dealing with.”
Trying several approaches
How severe is the shortage, or the “exodus,” as Slothower and others describe it? Clear data is not easily accessible. However, a study released by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University reported 36,000 teacher vacancies nationwide in August 2022, with at least 163,000 positions being filled by underqualified candidates. Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, executive director of the national Rural Schools Collaborative, says the vacancies in small, geographically isolated districts “are nuanced in their severity by subject, region, population demographics, and other factors.”
“We’re very aware that we need to recruit a workforce that has an affinity for the type of community we live in,” says John Wittler, a member of the Vilas school board and past president of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). “The teachers we get who are not tied to the community build their resume and transfer as soon as they can to a larger district. It’s not disparaging to them, but it’s a challenge for us because we want an experienced workforce and committed teachers who are here for the long term.”
More than 80% of Colorado’s 178 school districts are considered “rural,” meaning that they are in a remote area and have a student population of fewer than 6,500 students, according to the state’s definition. Of those 147 districts, 86 have fewer than 500 students, and 24 have fewer than 1,000 children.
Colorado had more than 5,700 open teacher positions in 2021-22, according to a report by the state’s education department. Of those, 440 positions remained unfilled for the entire year, while districts hired more than 1,100 retirees, alternative and emergency candidates, and long-term substitutes to close the gaps.
“We are throwing everything we can at this,” says Kirk Banghart, chief facilitator of the Colorado Rural Education Collaborative, which works with superintendents in 81 school districts. “Any feasible solution is being attempted, but unfortunately, building up the number of available educators takes time, and time is not on our side. Every year we don’t have a qualified teacher in a position is a year that students may not be gaining access to pedagogy.”
State legislators have tried several approaches. Using federal pandemic relief funds, the state created loan forgiveness and financial aid programs for teachers who have started their careers since 2019 and have remained in the classroom. They also agreed to provide up to $22,000 in stipends to those who complete a 32-week student teaching program and passed a bill that would allow retired teachers to return to the classroom without losing their pension benefits.
This year, lawmakers also considered a statewide apprenticeship program that would allow students to learn on the job for up to four years while they earn their bachelor’s degree. Slothower’s district and others in the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Extension Services are testing the apprentice model this year, allowing paraprofessionals with three and a half or more years of school experience to work in a supervised setting as classroom teachers.
“Many of our paraprofessional educators have been delivering instruction for 10 years or more, and so much of what we do is learn on the job anyway, so that’s the theory behind what we’ve done,” says Slothower, who has three apprentices in his district. “While the first semester of data does not a thesis make, we’re very pleased with the formative assessment results we’ve seen so far.”
The grow-your-own model has resulted in increased collaboration with community colleges and universities, both in Colorado and nationally. The University of Colorado Denver’s Partnership for Rural Educator Preparation program, known as T-PREP, is in five communities in the state. Building on T-PREP, the university also has received a five-year, $6.4 million federal grant to extend its “Next Generation” teacher program. Next Generation supports paraprofessionals, apprenticeships, and first-generation college students in rural areas.
“Everything you see in our state, especially in rural districts, is some variation on grow-your-own,” says Murphy, who joined the Rural Schools Alliance in 2016 after serving for more than a decade as CASB’s advocacy and legal counsel. “But when you get universities and community colleges invested in helping districts do this, it changes the game.”
Barbara Seidl, the university’s associate dean for teacher education and undergraduate experiences, says T-PREP programs hold classes at night on community college campuses. Candidates spend two years at their community college to earn an associate degree, then remain at the same campus while taking in-person and remote classes taught by university professors. At the end of the four-year program, graduates leave with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license.
“In rural districts, the long-term goal is getting teachers who will stay in the area and reduce the churn,” Seidl says. “The students who enter the programs come from the community and have deep roots there. They have a love of rural life and a love for the community, which means they’re less likely to leave.”
McCabe-Juhnke says remote and hybrid teacher prep programs are expanding nationally as universities shift their focus “on where their students are coming from and where they are going.” She says universities in 14 states are part of the collaborative’s Rural Teacher Corps Network, which is designed to “specifically recruit, prepare, and retain rural teachers.”
“We need to make sure we are celebrating the advantages of teaching in rural places, and being intentional about getting students interested in the rural sector well before they graduate,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “This can look like rural-specific curriculum, scholarships, clubs, stipends, or professional development.”
Seidl says T-PREP and similar types of programs are successful because districts now seek help rather than waiting to receive it.
“In the past,” she says, “districts would reach out and say they’d like to take on some student teachers, or they would ask us to work with them to prepare their new teachers. Now they’re much more focused on recruiting teachers into the pathway, asking us to hold information nights for people about the profession. They’re more active in the recruitment of teachers than they have been.”
Some students in the T-PREP program have been hired by districts as a teacher of record as early as their sophomore year. Seidl says she’s concerned about the long-term effect those moves will have, but understands some districts have no other choice.
“It’s hard to get an undergraduate degree, especially when you’re already working full time, and I fear that we may lose them or burn them out before they’re done,” she says. “At the same time, I also recognize the desperation that exists. That’s a testament to how bad it is in some areas.”
Thwarted by TABOR
Despite all the efforts being made to end—or at least curb—the shortages, Colorado’s efforts to build and improve its teaching force are being thwarted in part by a three-decade old law that limits the amount of revenue the state can keep and spend. Known as the TABOR Amendment, the law requires voter approval for any tax increase that could be used to boost teacher salaries and reduce the growing wage gap for educators that is being felt across the U.S.
“We need to pay teachers more. That’s the bottom line,” Murphy says. “We need to show them that we value them as educators by paying them a wage that doesn’t require them to get a second job just to pay their rent.”
In efforts to recruit teachers, some of Colorado’s rural districts have taken even more drastic steps, such as offering low-cost housing or moving to four-day work weeks. Federal legislation has been introduced to increase the minimum starting salary to $60,000. Some doubt it will be approved in a gridlocked Congress, despite a 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute that says teachers earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to their peers in similar jobs.
“TABOR has really hamstrung the state for many years,” Banghart says. “People are quick to compare the operation of schools to a business, but we can’t operate like a for-profit by law. That’s a fact that the voting public does not understand: School districts simply do not have the control over how money is spent the way that other industries do.”
Colorado is one of 29 states that do not have a minimum salary for teachers, and wages fluctuate greatly depending on location. In larger suburban districts, average salaries for teachers are $60,000 to $75,000. Campo and Vilas, by contrast, pay first-year teachers $27,500 and $32,300, respectively. Calhan will pay starting teachers $40,000 next year.
“Having a minimum pay scale or statewide pay scale would remove part of the challenge for us,” Wittler says. “But it would have to be accompanied by an adequate funding model or else that requirement would pose problems too. It’s a constant tension that school boards must work with. If you are spending more on salaries, then that’s less money you have to spend on curriculum, facilities, and things like that.”
Wittler estimates that Vilas spends 60% of its budget on salaries, compared to 80% to 90% in suburban and urban districts. “The difference in the scale of costs drives some of that,” he says. “If you’re ordering 70,000 textbooks instead of 70, it’s a different economy of scale. Every dollar we spend has an outsized effect on our budget, so you need to take a holistic approach.”
That holistic approach is one reason Pettinger reached out to Johnson about the prospect of sharing teachers, who work in person for two days each week in Vilas and Campo. On the two days the teachers are not in person, students access instruction by Zoom teleconferencing. The teachers are paid a higher salary and an additional stipend for making the commute between schools.
“We look at this as an opportunity. In many respects, this is the future of education,” says Pettinger, who was Vilas’ director of innovation before becoming interim superintendent. “We see people in different professions who are working from home now virtually, and this will be the future for many of our students.”
She continues: “Is it hard to learn this way? Absolutely. Is it an adjustment? Absolutely. But it’s also an opportunity to change the narrative about how students in rural schools can learn. And that’s exciting.”