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Colorado's Rural Schools Get Creative To Combat Teacher Shortage

Stephanie Daniel
Julesburg senior Bo Blochowitz talks to Janet Brophy, who teaches his online business class.

According to experts, one of the biggest factors is pay. In 2016, the state ranked 46 in the nation for average salary. Rural schools have an even harder time recruiting because the pay is often lower than urban areas and there's not much of a hiring pool.

"If you lose a teacher, there's nobody that you can just snag from the community to keep up," said Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a former educator.

This past school year, the average salary in Colorado was $52,728.

In Holyoke, Julesburg and Revere, small rural school districts in the northeastern part of the state, the teachers made about 35 percent less.

TABOR, the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, says voters have to approve any tax increase that could lead to a sizeable pay raise for teachers. That means these three districts have gotten creative in how they fill open teacher positions, recruit and retain educators and provide their students with a robust education.

Moving past brick-and-mortar confines

High school senior Bo Blochowitz sits in the school library and chats with his business teacher, Janet Brophy. In many ways, it is a typical conversation except he's in front on a laptop in Julesburg, Colorado, while Brophy is about 40 miles away in Haxtun.

"She is in another class right now but if I have questions, I can say, 'Hey, Mrs. Brophy.' And she'll come over and I can see her, and we can talk face to face," said Blochowitz. "If I'm working on an assignment and I need help, I can push that button and share my computer screen with her. It's pretty neat."

Brophy teaches online business classes for students all over the northeastern plains. Her class is part of the Northeast Colorado WAVES Consortium, which provides distance learning and college classes to its member districts.

WAVES is run by the Northeast Colorado BOCES, or Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The BOCES is made up of 12 school districts that together create cost-effective programming that they wouldn't otherwise be able to provide because of their small size.

Julesburg School District is a member of the Northeast BOCES.

"About 10 years ago as a small rural district we were concerned about having limited resources and learning options for our kids compared to kids in the front range or anywhere else that's an urban or metro area," said Shawn Ehnes, superintendent of the Julesburg School District. "We started to search out ways that we could expand course offerings for our kids."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Students at Julesburg Junior/Senior High School can choose online classes from more than 130 options.

The district offers classes and fulltime schooling through Destinations Career Academy of Colorado, a multi-district online school. About 300 K-12 students attend the physical, brick-and-mortar school.

Towards the end of the day older students can choose to take one of about 130 online classes.

"Instead of kids having to take our internal art or shop class, now we've got kids taking marine biology and horticulture and all kinds of really career-related, direct pathways to what they want to do after high school," said Ehnes.

Destinations Career Academy of Colorado is a state-approved online career and technical education program. The multi-district school is open to high school students around the state and about 500 are currently enrolled fulltime. They work from home with a learning coach or their parents.

Ehnes said students' access to career and technical programs like Destinations' is important because it connects their learning to future career aspirations. Along with the online school and courses, the district also encourages students to take college classes or gain work experience through apprenticeships and internships.

"I think that's a real key component to keeping kids in school, keeping them engaged in their learning and feeling a sense of purpose as to why they're learning," said Ehnes.

Online learning is not new to Colorado. The state has 41 authorized online schools that serve about 19,000 students - a number that has grown more than 28 percent in the past eight years.

Numerous organizations offer online classes to students all around the state - like Colorado Digital Learning Solutions. CDLS provides a supplemental and blended learning program. It is mainly funded through the state legislature and managed by the Colorado River BOCES. The non-profit organization offers hundreds of online classes from AP courses to music appreciation and forensic science.

During the 2017-18 school year, 41 percent of all the school districts in Colorado had students registered in a CDLS course. Over the past three years, enrollment by sixth through 12th graders has increased by 357 percent.

Out of these districts, nearly 90 percent were from rural areas like Ovid, Colorado, home to Revere School District.

"Our schedule is really, really tight because I have one teacher for every content area," said Brandon Marquez, the principal at Revere. "So, when we have that class, we have it one time a day."

Revere has 130 K-12 students, all housed in one building. Because the school has limited resources and teachers, CDLS gives those students the chance to take classes that either aren't offered or don't fit into their schedule.

Revere has a computer room where students can connect to both WAVES and CDLS courses.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Kaitelyn Radel, sophomore at Revere, takes a Spanish distance learning class.

Kaitelyn Radel, a 16-year-old sophomore at Revere, was enrolled in a WAVES Spanish class taught in neighboring Holyoke. Katie was the only student from Revere taking the class, so she would join via a computer and virtually communicate with the teacher and other students.

"I'm an interactive learner and I like to be able to ask questions and it's definitely a lot easier when you're being broadcasted to the class in itself," said Radel. "Considering this is a really rural place and we don't have enough funding to have Spanish teachers of our own, it's really, really nice to be able to do that."

Attracting talent beyond borders

Charmaine Teodoro shows off a large bulletin board in her classroom at Julesburg Junior/Senior High School. It's filled with photos that highlight life in Manila, the city in the Philippines where she is from. The first-year math teacher created the collage at the suggestion of a school administrator who thought it would help her students get to know her better.

In the Philippines, Teodoro taught only one grade - with 50 to 60 students in each class. In Julesburg, it's a different story. The class sizes are small, but because of the teacher shortage she's the only math instructor for all junior and senior high students.

She teaches five courses now.

"(At first) it's kind of difficult to prepare five lessons in a day because I'm used to just doing one lesson plan per day and that just repeats for every single class that I have for the day," she said.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Charmaine Teodoro, who teaches math at Julesburg Junior/Senior High School, created a collage of life in the Philippines for her students.

Teodoro was hired last August after the long-time math teacher left. Julesburg, located in a small town close to the Nebraska border, didn't have any applicants for the job.

They got creative and looked oversees for candidates.

"Our ability to attract and recruit high caliber teachers is our biggest struggle that we have," said district superintendent Ehnes.

Julesburg isn't the only Eastern Plains school to hire a teacher from the Philippines. About 30 miles south at Holyoke Junior/Senior High, Cristine Mallari teaches math. She was teacher in Manila for seven years before coming to Colorado.

There, she made $500 a month. In Holyoke teachers average $3,200.

"I couldn't sustain my family's lifestyle," said Mallari. "So, I decided to come here for greener pastures."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Holyoke math teacher Cristine Mallari chats with Bret Miles, executive director of the Northeast Colorado BOCES.

Mallari has been teaching for four years under a J-1 visa as part of an exchange program. She said the first year was hard and overwhelming but, after a couple months, she brought over her husband and daughter.

To teach in Colorado, candidates need to get a visa, pass a background check and apply for licensure. The length of the license can vary from one to five years, depending on the needs and training of the educator.

The state doesn't track the number of international teachers, who come from all over the world. But according to 2016 federal data, more than 2,600 J-1 teacher visas were issued nationwide. 54 of those were in Colorado.

"Anecdotally there has been more and more international candidates from outside the United States applying for licensure," said Tanya Klein, director of licensure at the Department of Education.

Mallari has taken a new Filipino teacher under her wing.

"Because of the culture, and how much similar you are and your struggles being a foreign teacher at that," she said. "It's really nice that you get to share your personal experiences with someone that you know you can really relate to."

While hiring internationally has worked well for some schools, short-term visas and licenses mean it might not be a permanent solution to the teacher shortage.

When Burlington School District, near the Kansas border, needed high school special education, physical science and biological science teachers, as well as a fourth-grade teacher, a regional search - including career fairs and cold calls - yielded zero applicants. The district hired four Filipino teachers.

Superintendent Tom Satterly said they are great and the community been welcoming, but he prefers to hire teachers from within the state.

"We are a small Eastern Plains town and community and I love hiring people from small rural America because they understand what it's like ," he said.

Getting student teachers out of the city

Shauna Brown is a second-year agriculture teacher at Holyoke Junior/Senior High School. She decided to work in a rural school after student teaching in a small one in southeastern Colorado.

"I don't think if I had student-taught on the Front Range that I would envision myself in a smaller school," she said.

Brown is an alum of Colorado State University. She thinks higher education schools need to do a better job of steering their student teachers into rural districts.

"What I would really love to see happen is putting student teachers in all content areas in our rural schools for student teacher," Brown said. "I think that would be one really important step that we could start filling our void of teachers in rural Colorado."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Agriculture teacher Shauna Brown (far left) talks about life in Holyoke with colleagues Hannah Peterson, Nic Balog and Tarah Priddy.

The state Department of Higher Education is taking steps in that direction.

In January 2018 the department gave a combined $300,000 in federal grants to seven colleges and universities to fund programs aimed at fighting huge teacher shortages in the state's 147 rural districts.

Those institutions are partnering with rural districts to focus on recruiting local residents to become teachers, offering field experiences for teacher candidates and expanding professional development for teachers and administrators in high-need areas.

The University of Colorado Boulder received at $42,000 grant. They're working with the Northeast BOCES, which includes Revere, Julesburg and Burlington districts. One part of their program was hosting an immersion weekend, where student teachers got an opportunity to visit classrooms and meet with community members.

"We know that teachers try to get jobs where they student teach," said Bret Miles, executive director of the Northeast BOCES. "We thought if we could put together a weekend where we could get kids out before they choose where they're going to student teach, maybe we could attract them."

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Holyoke Junior/Senior High School has hired educators from the Philippines to fill open teaching positions.

The grants are in part administered by the Colorado Center for Rural Education. The center was established in January 2017 with a five-year, $2.2 million grant from the state. Housed on the campus of the University of Northern Colorado, it works with 22 institutes of higher education to recruit, prepare, place and support educators in rural communities.

The center provides scholarships to both education majors who student-teach in a rural district and to in-service teachers who are studying to be licensed to teach college classes to high school students or seeking national board certification. In 2017, the center gave out 74 undergrad and 10 in-service teacher scholarships.

From the Capitol, legislators passed a bill that creates a fellowship program targeting college students in the last year of a teacher preparation program. It would give them a $10,000 stipend to student teach in a rural school for one year. They must then commit to teaching in the district for two years after that.

But even with better recruitment and state funded programs, Colorado's teacher shortage isn't going to be resolved quickly. Statistics from the state Department of Education show since 2010 enrollment in and completion of educator preparation programs have declined by 24 and 17 percent, respectively.

Compounding the problem, Colorado loses about 16 percent of new teachers within the first five years. Nearly a third of current educators will be eligible for retirement over the next several years.

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