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Rural Schools Serve As A Canary In The Coalmine For Colorado’s Teacher Shortage

Ann Marie Awad
A single building houses Weldon Valley Elementary School, Weldon Valley Middle School and Weldon Valley High School in Weldona, Colorado.

Outside of the single building that houses Weldon Valley Elementary, Weldon Valley Middle School and Weldon Valley High School, it’s very quiet. Kids are in class, and the school is not near any major roads. Megan Quitter can pick out different bird calls as the sunshine warms the cool morning.

“I heard mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds,” she says. “I used to do outdoor education.”

Quitter now works for the University of Northern Colorado as their new rural education coordinator. As the title suggests, she takes aspiring teachers on the road and shows them what rural districts have to offer. In typical teacher fashion, she calls them “field trips.”

“Weldon Valley is my 96th school district that I’ve been to in Colorado in the past year,” she laughs. “So I’ve put, like I said, almost 11,000 miles on my car since November, just driving around the most remote parts of Colorado.”

The town of Weldona is about an hour’s drive east of Greeley, and it’s small. Just 139 people lived here when the 2010 census was taken. Inside, the clatter of slamming lockers and the murmur of conversation mark the transition from one class period to another. Jeff Sparrow, the principal, strikes up a chat with this student and that one, all on a first-name basis.

“I assist the superintendent, so I’m the assistant superintendent, I am the principal,” he says. “I’m the athletic director, I shovel the snow, I sweep the floors, I mop up messes, I’m a substitute teacher, I -- this morning I played doctor. So there’s something to do every day, there’s not one hat that I wear each and every day.”

Sparrow isn’t the only one pulling double -- or even triple -- duty. Most of the teaching staff has just as big of a hat collection as Sparrow does.

Take Michael Schmeeckle, for example. He teaches both seventh and eighth grade language arts and social studies, along with a section of elementary school math. That’s not including extracurriculars, like coaching one of the sports teams. He came to teaching -- and Weldon Valley -- through the state’s alternative licensure program.

“It’s a wonderful program,” he says. “I had spent 20 years in long term care administration, decided that I wanted to become a teacher -- my father was a teacher, and I really felt that that was always my calling, was to become a teacher.”

Credit Ann Marie Awad
Michael Schmeeckle teaches his seventh grade language arts class.

Implemented by the Colorado legislature in 2009, alternative licensure was meant address the dwindling number of teachers by making it easier to become a teacher. But since 2010 there’s been a 24 percent decline in teacher licensure – and a similar drop in enrollment for those programs. With a smaller pool of applicants to choose from, Sparrow says it’s even harder to win people over at job fairs.

“They walk by me. I’m a carnival worker,” he laughs. “I’m hootin’ and hollerin’, ‘Come on over and talk to me!’ and you can’t get them to talk to you. Because I’m not part of the big twelve, I’m not Denver, I’m not Jefferson County, I’m not Douglas County, I’m not the Adams school district. So it’s very challenging.”

But Robert Mitchell, the director of educator preparation at the state Department of Higher Education, says the problem is not simply attracting new teachers. It’s keeping them.

“We know we have issues across the state and across the country for teacher retention,” he says. “Most teachers, really, if you look nationwide, 50 percent of all teachers get out of education within three years.”

And, he warns, something needs to change, soon.

“One thing we know for certain, we can’t continue to go down the road we’re currently going down, we can’t keep having this downward trend,” he says.

Diagnosing the problem is one thing. Finding the causes -- and possible solutions -- is another. Some feel the state’s teacher effectiveness law is part of the reason. Passed in 2010, some teachers say the law placed a host of new pressures on them. Others point to pay. Colorado is among the top ten states with the largest declines in teacher salaries since 2004.

Quitter says when teachers can’t pay their bills, schools feel the crunch.

“I know of a teacher who left his math position to become the custodian, to make overtime,” she says.

But state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, doesn’t want people to think that pay is the whole story.

“Teachers do not go into this business thinking that they’re going to be making a million dollars,” she says.

A former teacher herself, McLachlan is the first to admit that she doesn’t have all the answers. Which is why she sponsored House Bill 1003 to have the state departments of education and higher education band together to study the problem.

“We need to have a serious talk with all the stakeholders in it, you know, the kids and the parents and the administrators, and the business people and -- what is best for our area?” she says “And what’s best for the Fort Collins area may be very different from what’s best for even Denver area.”

House Bill 1003 has passed the House and is pending a vote in the Senate. McLachlan is also sponsoring a bill to allow retired teachers to return to rural classrooms. The incentive would be continued payments from the state's public employees retirement fund. That bill is pending a House vote. 

Quitter says lawmakers can study the problem all they want. But she doesn’t think things will truly get done until the state’s largest urban districts are impacted.

“I think until Cherry Creek has a hard time finding a science teacher for their fifth grade classroom, it’s not going to be on the front of everybody’s mind, but our rural districts are definitely having a hard time finding positions,” she said. “We’ve had school districts go for four years without a full math teacher.”

Situations like that are all too common to Quitter. And ultimately, she says, it’s the students who lose out.

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