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)

resentment and hurt

‘We are all educators:’ How the teachers strike opened at a rift at one Denver middle school network that will take time to close

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

For the first time since this week’s Denver teacher strike exposed divisions in their ranks, the 100 adults who make the Beacon middle school network run gathered in the same room.

Teachers, some still wearing red for the union cause, came with breakfast burritos to share. Upbeat soul music pumped through the speakers, an attempt to set a positive tone.  

Speaking to the group assembled Friday for a long-scheduled planning day in the cafeteria of Grant Beacon Middle School, Executive Principal Alex Magaña opened by acknowledging the awkwardness that had taken a toll on a school community that prides itself on a strong culture.

Some teachers who had gone on strike — exhausted by the experience and exhilarated by the outcome — felt snubbed. Where was the celebration of what they had just fought for?

School administrators were smarting for another reason: A large number of teachers did not return to work on Thursday after the tentative pact was signed, making for another hard day.

Just as it was starting, the effort to heal the Beacon school community was stumbling a bit.

One day after the end of the three-day strike over teacher pay, Denver students had a day off Friday, giving leaders at the 147 district-managed schools affected by the strike the opportunity to begin repairing any damage done. The district administration shared resources with schools, too, including a “lessons learned” tipsheet from the recent Los Angeles teachers strike.

The challenge is proving unexpectedly daunting at the city’s two “Beacon” schools — Grant Beacon in east Denver and Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver — which share a common central administrative staff, approach, and mission to serve the city’s neediest students.

“It’s never been administration-versus-teachers, district-versus-teachers, in the culture we have created here,” said Magaña, who oversees the two schools. “We have a lot of good leadership, a lot of input from teachers. But this caught everyone kind of surprise.”

By “this,” Magaña means the tension that developed on the two campuses before, during, and after the strike that put Denver in an unfamiliar national glare. The 93,000-student district is better known for its unique brand of at times controversial education reform — of which the Beacon network is part — than it is labor strife and division in the educator ranks.

As it became evident that the teachers union was intent on striking, Magaña said he sent a message to the teachers, staff, and administrators on the two campuses.

“I called it out two weeks ago: Be careful with what you say, because it’s going to cause harm and impact our culture,” he said. “Everyone has their own right to make their own individual decision. Respect it. And people were trying to respect it.”

From Magaña’s perspective, it didn’t always happen. At Kepner Beacon, where 96 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, the young corps of teachers “grouped together and suddenly had this camaraderie, which is something that is part of our culture and that makes us successful,” Magaña said.

However, he said some striking teachers “were guilting teachers into joining for solidarity.” He added that teachers who crossed picket lines told him they felt alienated.

Linsey Cobb, a special education teacher and special education team leader at Kepner Beacon, disputes that. She said every teacher wholeheartedly supported each teacher’s decision.

Cobb herself was torn about striking. She said she stood with teachers fighting for a system they believed would pay them a better, fairer wage. But the third-year teacher ended up reporting to work as usual Monday morning, feeling too strong of a pull to fulfill her responsibilities supporting students with individualized education plans — the complex and sometimes confounding binding documents for students with special needs.

Cobb said she was not fully prepared by what she experienced that morning.

“Even though I am very close with my students, I felt incredibly isolated,” she said. “I got the weirdest feeling. I got a lot of, ‘Miss, why aren’t you striking? Don’t you believe what teachers are fighting for?’ I was like, ‘I do!’ I had a little bit of an internal struggle.”

After attending the big teachers union rally Monday at the Capitol, Cobb said she woke up Tuesday and decided to join her colleagues picketing, which she did for the strike’s duration.

The strike brought to the forefront just how different the two Beacon campuses are. At Grant Beacon, 80 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch — slightly above the district average. That part of the city, like much of Denver, is gentrifying. The southwest Denver neighborhood around Kepner is not. The school is a safe harbor from violence and trauma.

About half of Grant Beacon students showed up for school during the strike, and six in 10 teachers joined the strike. Four miles and a world away at Kepner Beacon, 90 percent of students showed up for school — and all but a few teachers were out on strike.

Against the backdrop of the strike, Magaña said he emphasized that words matter. Everyone in the buildings, he thought, not just teachers, ought to be considered educators. That was the role everyone was thrust into — administrators, deans, and district central office staff who through no choice of their own had to cover for absent teachers. Magaña, too. He taught math.

“We maintained a positive culture through a really weird and complicated time,” said Tristan Connett, who as Kepner’s dean of students was pressed into service to teach eighth-grade reading and language arts. “Not just for students, but all the adults, everyone included.”

Outside Kepner Beacon each morning of the strike, teachers huddled over donuts and coffee. Parents brought them hand-warmers in the 20-degree chill. One teacher sat in her car with the engine running recording a video message to her students, telling them where she was and spelling out the day’s lesson plan before she joined the picket line, Cobb said.

The Beacon schools promote character-building and use personalized learning, using data and technology to tailor instruction to individual students. As “innovation schools,” the schools are exempt from some state laws and aspects of the teachers union contract. Both schools were “green,” the second-highest ranking, in the district’s most recent school ratings.

Cracks in school culture did show during the strike. Magaña said one teacher at Grant Beacon was hurt by the negative reaction he received from striking colleagues.

The strike’s sudden end just after 6 a.m. Thursday led to mixed messages and confusion about what was expected of teachers that day, deepening rifts at the Beacon schools.

Cobb, the Kepner special education teacher, said teachers somehow got what turned out to be incorrect information from the union that they couldn’t be late for the start of school if they wanted to return.

Many striking teachers did not come back to school Thursday. That was out of step with the district as a whole, which saw the vast majority of teachers back in classrooms.

Some Beacon teachers, Magaña said, “said they were mentally and physically exhausted.” What, he asked, does that tell everyone who took on unfamiliar roles to keep the schools open?

When teachers, administrators, and staff arrived for Friday morning’s meeting, they congregated at tables with colored pencils and “reflection forms.” Everyone was asked to write down answers to two questions: What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your colleagues?

“I also brought out the obvious — the elephant in the room,” Magaña said. “There are hurt feelings. There is resentment from teachers to staff to students to parents. That is something we can’t pretend isn’t there, and we put it out there and acknowledge it to move forward.”

The message from the network administration left a number of teachers disappointed.

“Every teacher who went out on strike believed in it, we got this victory, and it wasn’t celebrated as a whole,” Cobb said. “It was more like there was an acknowledgement of what we want to repair. OK, but we felt like we deserved a little celebration for what we accomplished.”

Several teachers took up administrators’ offers to speak in private throughout the day, and when everyone gathered to wrap things up, Cobb said there was acknowledgement of what teachers had accomplished. Magaña said Saturday he doesn’t regret starting off the day like he did.

“We had to acknowledge all of the feelings of the group,” he said. “It was about all of us working together for a common ground.”

Under the tentative deal union members are expected to vote on next week, all of the teachers in the Beacon network will see their base pay increase. The incentives Kepner Beacon teachers receive for teaching in a “highest priority” school will be slightly smaller but will continue.

After the Presidents’ Day holiday Monday, teachers and students will return to school on Tuesday and try to the maintain culture that has contributed to promising academic progress.

“It’s about trust,” Magaña said. “Some of it was cracked a little it. There was no contention in the room (Friday). It was really coming in with openness and willingness by everyone to say, ‘It’s done, and we did the right thing for ourselves. Now it’s time to come closer together.’”

“Normalcy will happen,” added Cobb, the teacher. “But it might take a bit.”

bonus

Aurora school district numbers shows some positive results from hard-to-staff bonus

Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.

When the Aurora school district offered some teachers and service providers a bonus for accepting or returning to hard-to-staff positions, the district saw less turnover in those jobs and had more of them filled by the start of the school year.

But the results weren’t consistent across schools, and there were differences in how teachers and other support staff responded to the bonus. Some schools still saw big increases in turnover. And the district still couldn’t fill all positions by the start of the school year.

In a report that district staff will present to the Aurora school board Tuesday, survey responses show the bonus was most influential for new special service providers, such as nurses, occupational therapists, or speech language pathologists. But only 33 percent of new teachers coming into the district said the bonus made an impact on their decision.

Aurora administrators refused to talk about the findings ahead of the board meeting. When the district first announced the bonuses, Superintendent Rico Munn said he had hoped the pilot bonus system would help the district attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees. The union objected to the bonuses. The union and the district begin negotiations next month on how to spend $10 million that voters approved to raise teacher pay.

An arbitrator ruled that the district should have negotiated the terms of the bonuses with the union first, but the school board refused to uphold the finding. District officials had indicated that the results of the pilot incentives would play a role in what changes they propose going forward, and it’s not clear where the school board, a majority of whom were elected with union support, will come down.

On a state and national level, incentives for teachers are being questioned after Denver teachers went on strike, in part over a disagreement about how effective incentives can be and whether that money is better spent on base pay. Ultimately, the tentative agreement that ended the strike on Thursday maintained a number of bonuses, including $2,000 for educators in hard-to-staff positions.

In the Aurora pilot program, the district offered a bonus for special education, secondary math and secondary science teachers at 20 targeted schools. If staff in those positions committed to returning to their job for this year, they could get $3,000. If they returned, but did not give an early commitment, the bonus would be $2,500.

The same rules applied for other positions such as psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists, but those employees were eligible at all district schools. New employees in those positions could get $2,500.

To pay for the bonuses, the district had set aside $1.8 million from an unexpected increase in revenue due in part to rising property values. The district only ended up spending about $1.1 million.

Among 229 eligible teachers, 133 returned to their jobs, committing early, and another 29 returned without making an early commitment, meaning about 70 percent of teachers were retained and received the bonus.

Of the 20 schools at which teachers of math, science, and special education received incentives, turnover went down at 13 schools, up at another five, and stayed the same at two.

Among 184 staff members in the other hard-to-staff positions districtwide, 141 returned to their jobs, or 77 percent, all of them committing early and receiving the higher bonus.

The report doesn’t compare those numbers with previous years’.

Ramie Randles, a math teacher, was at Aurora West Collegiate Prep last year and received the bonus. But, she says, she had already decided to return to the same job this school year even before she learned about the bonus.

“To be honest with you it’s nice to get a little extra, but it’s a very small amount that’s not going to sway me one way or another,” Randles said.

In the second quarter of the school year, she left her job at Aurora West and is now teaching math at North Middle School.

The bonus is offered at both schools, but it wasn’t a factor, she said.

“I just feel like I want to feel valued in a job,” Randles said. “If I’m feeling like I’m happy that affects not just me, it affects my students. It affects my coworkers.”

According to the district, 98.26 percent of those who received a bonus remain in the same position as of this week.

Fill rates, which represent how many of the district’s positions are filled by the start of the school year, show an increase, although often small, among all positions except for school psychologists.

Fill rates over time: Did Aurora have more positions filled at the start of this school year than in the past?

Position 16-17 17-18 18-19
Secondary math teachers at 20 schools 91.5% 92.6% 93.4%
Secondary science teachers at 20 schools 93.5% 93.8% 94.8%
Special education teachers at 20 schools 92.6% 89.4% 90.24%
Nurses, district-wide 87.3% 94.6% 98%
Occupational therapists, district-wide 95.4% 80% 96.1%
Psychologists, district-wide 94.4% 96% 95.4%
Speech language pathologists, district-wide 75% 81.4% 85.4%

Another goal of the pilot was to help the district save money by decreasing the use of contract agencies to fill important positions.

The report found that compared with last year, fewer positions were filled through contract agencies.

The Aurora district “was one of the few districts in the metro area that did not provide some form of differentiated pay or incentive for hard-to-fill subject areas,” according to the district. As examples, the report cites Cherry Creek, Denver, and Douglas school districts.

Bruce Wilcox, president of Aurora’s teachers union, said the union has “no interest in pay like Denver does.”

He is against the bonus because he disagrees with setting up different pay for people doing the same jobs in different schools, and because he doubts it will have a long- term effect.

“For some, maybe money was enough to lure them in, but will it be enough to lure them in over a period of time?” Wilcox asked. “Money’s nice and every teacher needs it, let’s be honest, but is it enough to make you continue to work if the leadership and culture aren’t there?”

Tuesday, Aurora staff will also present the school board with an update on overall strategies to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Among those strategies: the development of new training for principals, including on how to motivate and retain high-performing employees.

Another report on the pilot incentives will be prepared this fall with final numbers of how many teachers stayed.

Find turnover rates for the pilot, by school, in the district’s report below. Note: The colors in the second column represent a comparison over the prior year with green showing that it is a lower rate than in the past.