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Promising Practices: Educators Matter - Full Story
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Archuleta School District
Dolores RE-4A School District
For three years Maggie Gillette thrived in her dream job as band and choir teacher at Dolores Secondary School, but when she learned she was pregnant with her first child she feared she may have to quit.
Gillette and her husband have no family in the area and no friends who could take care of an infant while they worked. She talked to people at work and at her church, asking colleagues for references. Still nothing. The nearest infant care facility was 10 miles away.
“After getting over the excitement of being pregnant, we realized we needed a plan,” she said.
But there wasn’t one.
At the same time, three other teachers in Dolores School District RE-4A were facing a similar dilemma. Suddenly having four pregnant teachers who were likely going to quit was a big problem for the rural school district that has struggled to attract teachers. Superintendent Scott Cooper said it was a hit he wasn’t about to take.
“We started brainstorming about what we could do to keep these teachers,” Cooper said. “We thought, if we created an infant care facility, they would probably come back.” He was right. The district built a high-quality infant care center and two of the four pregnant teachers returned and others have signed on to the school district, attracted by the new child care option.
Colorado school districts continue to face a daunting teacher shortage problem and many are using nontraditional ways to attract and retain teachers – starting infant care centers, offering leadership opportunities and even building housing for teachers. The hardest hit areas are in the rural parts of Colorado, where districts cannot compete with urban districts for salaries and other benefits.
The impact is daunting. Research shows that having a high-quality teacher in the classroom does more to affect student learning than any other school-based factor. Yet, every year approximately 3,000 to 3,500 teaching openings occur across Colorado’s 178 school districts. Typically, positions fill with teachers changing districts, students graduating from college educator preparation programs or by people who have completed alternative licensing programs.
Since 2015 there has been a 22.7 percent decrease in the number of people completing educator preparation programs and many open teaching positions go unfilled.
“I’ve been here seven years, and it is getting slimmer and slimmer,” said Cooper about the number of teachers applying for positions. “We try to get more and more creative to attract them for an interview. But they’ll call back and say, ‘Durango has offered me $10,000 more.’”
The average salary for a teacher in Dolores is $40,000, which is $12,000 less than the state average. The starting pay is about $30,000, Cooper said. Currently, the district employs about 50 teachers.
“When a new teacher comes here and they are looking at $30,000, it is very discouraging,” he said. “We are trying to do things. We are exploring teacher housing. But it is really discouraging for a professional who comes out of college with a degree and they have to go into subsidized housing.”
That is why creating a toddler-infant center made such sense. Part of the funding for the center came in the form of $23,000 in grants secured by Valiena Rosenkrance, director of the district’s preschool. The building, a modular, was donated by the high school. And labor to bring the site up to the state’s stringent codes for an infant center was donated by the community. Rosenkrance enlisted the help of Dolores’ alumni. Plumbers, framers, roofers, electricians and even the football team lined up to help build the facility.
“The $100,000 project was 75 percent covered by the community,” Cooper said.
Teddy Bear Preschool Center provides spots for eight infants and eight toddlers and opened on time for the first day of school in 2017. It has a 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio, was given top rating on Colorado Shines’ four-star scale and attained accreditation with the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
“This is a selling point,” said Cooper, adding that he leaves spots open over the summer in hopes of using them to attract new teachers for the next school year.
“I don’t know what we would have done if they hadn’t built this infant-toddler center,” said Maggie Gillette, whose infant daughter Leah was enrolled at the beginning. “It’s wonderful. I am a block away if she needs me. I can be here in two minutes.”
Valuing teachers in Pagosa Springs
Other school districts are taking different approaches to deal with the teacher shortage. Pagosa Springs is about two hours east of Dolores and home to popular mineral hot springs, great skiing, majestic hiking and awe-inspiring rafting. Even a plethora of outdoor amenities cannot make up for the fact that the average salary for teachers in Pagosa Springs is $42,690. To attract and retain teachers, the school district is focusing on providing its educators with more opportunities for professional improvement and leadership roles.
Teachers have received training on education finance, legislative issues and how to impact change. They are working on how to support the district’s ballot issues for a construction bond and mill levy override, working to understand how legislation impacts the classroom and even persuaded the city and county to use marijuana tax revenue for college scholarships.
“I truly believe giving educators opportunities to express themselves and follow their passions is the best way to attract and retain teachers,” said Linda Reed, superintendent of Archuleta School District where Pagosa Springs is located.
Reed’s philosophy is to encourage teachers to broaden their perspectives, grow professionally and take leadership roles. Typically for teachers the only way to grow professionally is through a move out of the classroom and into administration. But tiny Archuleta School District has only three traditional schools and a charter school with few opportunities to advance into the administration. That is one reason why Reed has encouraged teachers to apply for fellowships with national education nonprofits, become teacher leaders within their schools or pick their own electives to teach.
One example is seventh-grade social studies teacher Melissa Shaw and eighth-grade science teacher Anita Hinger, who both applied for and received fellowships with Teach Plus, a national nonprofit that works with teachers to “deepen their knowledge of education policy.”
Shaw specialized in learning about school finance and created a Teacher Leadership Council in the district. And Hinger developed a deeper understanding of legislation affecting teachers. Together, they have helped bring more clarity for their colleagues about education finance.
“When teachers are given responsibility, choice and voice, amazing things can happen,” Shaw said. “You have to give teachers professionalism, autonomy and support and know them enough to give them opportunities. Teachers have a lot to say, but we don’t have a pathway to do so. Through these opportunities, I feel I have an avenue to a voice.”
Fifth-grade math teacher Janae Ash said the district has been flexible in letting teachers choose the type of professional development they want and also allowing them to create special courses that interest them, like triathlon training that Ash leads.
Ash also joined America Achieves, another national nonprofit that pairs her with legislators. Recently, she worked with other teachers to encourage the town and county government to access marijuana tax revenue for $10,000 worth of college scholarships for Pagosa Springs’ graduates.
“The bottom line is I feel supported,” Ash said. “Any time you have teachers passionate about something, other teachers tend to follow. Just knowing that teachers have some choices and can grow the way they see best, people want to stay.”
For Reed, it is all about giving teachers respect and opportunities to flourish. In recent years, she has seen as many as half of the teachers in her district retire or move out of the community. She also has struggled to attract applicants for open positions. Yet, she is sure that once teachers sign on and see the collaboration and growth possibilities in the district, they are liable to stay.
“The teacher shortage, while it’s more acute on the eastern plains, it is going to impact all of us,” Reed said. “We have to get ahead of it. We have to think ahead of the curve to do things differently. If you create an environment of support and collaboration, and truly value people in your organization, you will attract and retain the brightest.”