Colorado teachers rally outside the state Capitol to demand more funding for schools and oppose changes to the state’s pension system in Denver, Monday, April 16, 2018. They later headed inside to lobby lawmakers in an event organized by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union. (AP Photo/Colleen Slevin)

A recent report by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute in California found that longstanding teacher shortages were becoming more acute in some states, and that teacher education enrollment has been dropping significantly in recent years.  Colorado is one of those states with a big problem — especially in its rural areas. In fact, the state government earlier this year allocated $300,000 for programs designed to attack this problem in rural areas.

The Denver Post wrote in a recent article:

The state’s teacher shortage, which mirrors a national trend, grows larger each year. As many as 3,000 new teachers are needed to fill existing slots in Colorado classrooms while the number of graduates from teacher-preparation programs in the state has declined by 24.4 percent over the past five years.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the state’s teacher preparation programs in 2015-16 remained flat from the previous academic year with 9,896 students. On top of that, at least a third of the teachers in Colorado are 55 or older, and closing in on retirement.

This is a post about one program in Colorado that is finding success retaining teachers in rural areas. It was written by Karen Lowenstein, director of policy at Colorado’s Public Education & Business Coalition.

By Karen Lowenstein

Many schools across the country are struggling with a crippling teacher shortage. The number of students entering university-based teacher preparation programs has steadily declined and the number of teachers retiring or getting ready to retire is increasing; adding to this, current working conditions and public perceptions of the teaching profession have led to increased turnover rates — and according to some organizations, this growing shortage of teachers is at crisis level.

This is especially true for rural communities, including in Colorado. Alternative licensure pathways, including residency models of entering the teaching profession, have been a lifeline for finding and keeping rural teachers in the state.

The state’s 2016-17 Educator Preparation Report  submitted by the Colorado Department of Higher Education [CDHE] and the Colorado Department of Education [CDE] indicates the state has seen “record low enrollment numbers” in educator preparation programs in recent years.

And, one recent analysis of turnover rates in Colorado school districts found that 2014-15 saw the highest number of teachers leave the profession in 15 years. Paired with this, the analysis found there was higher turnover in districts with high poverty rates. CHDE reports that rural schools in Colorado face teacher shortages across all content areas, and a 2017 report on rural shortages details the struggles rural districts face in finding and keeping teachers, especially when there are specific needs in math, science, special education or world language.

To give a sense of this urgency, 148 of the 178 districts in Colorado, are classified as rural districts — and 109 meet the criteria for small rural (less than 1,000 students), with 88 districts having less than 500 students.

Across the nation, states have put together task forces and committees to study the issue and make recommendations on how to address the teacher shortage. The Learning Policy Institute reports that many, including Washington, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, have proposed legislation to provide scholarships and loan forgiveness for teaching service. Hiring retired teachers, building paraprofessional pipelines and subsidizing year-long apprenticeships are also strategies school districts have explored to address the issue.

Last year, Colorado’s legislature passed a law to allow retired teachers to be rehired without affecting their pensions. This effort has supported small Colorado districts, such as the Montezuma-Cortez School District. However, it is far from a long-term solution.

Colorado House Bill 17-1003, passed last year, required the Colorado Department of Higher Education and Colorado Department of Education to study the recruitment, preparation and retention of teachers, with attention to rural Colorado and specific ways to address the state’s shortage.

The final report  is accompanied by an action plan that outlines strategic goals focused on recruitment in specific content areas and for specific geographic regions, with attention to compensation and benefits for teachers, as well as retention of current teachers.

The just completed  legislative session included three bills put forward by legislators to address Colorado’s teacher shortage, including a bipartisan bill on loan forgiveness that would compensate teachers for their service in rural areas upon completion of a preparation program. But the urgency to meet the specific needs of rural school districts in Colorado, which are disproportionately affected by the current teacher shortage, is lost within the long list of the state’s potential action items.

But one teacher preparation program that does include rural districts is the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC)’s teacher residency model, which stands out among its counterparts for its sheer success in regards to retention. Ninety-five percent of teachers who complete PEBC’s alternative  licensure program  remain in the profession after five years. Compare that to the 40-50 percent of teachers who leave the profession nationally within five years, costing schools billions of dollars every year.

Perhaps, then, the alternative residency model should be viewed as a high-retention pathway for educators, since it has been shown  to greatly reduce teacher turnover. An effective residency model is built on the expertise of education leaders in a specific community, and the role of rural leaders cannot be overstated when it comes to rural residency. The needs in schools across rural Colorado vary greatly, and it would be detrimental to homogenize rural Colorado into one category. Strong relationships between teacher mentors, principals and program staff are the successful foundation for the year-long intensive clinical support that is a hallmark of the residency model.

Cortez, Ignacio and Dolores are some of the small rural districts that have partnered with PEBC through its rural residency model. Education leaders from these districts work in collaboration with PEBC to recruit and select candidates, many of whom have grown up in rural communities themselves.

Candidates have included former journalists, medical assistants and engineers. Dusty Mars, a former oil production foreman, discovered how much he enjoyed tutoring and volunteering, ultimately deciding to pursue a teaching career in Ignacio through PEBC’s residency. Not only is his former career an asset to his teaching, but as a long-time resident, Mars is also committed to the long-term growth of his community.

The good news is that a bipartisan group of Colorado state representatives and senators have drafted a bill proposing that the state learn from effective residency models  in order to expand them. This would be a wise investment to elevate what we know already works and will go a long way to address Colorado’s teacher workforce needs. Teacher residencies merit this kind of investment, because our rural communities deserve it.

When strong partnerships exist across diverse geographic and economic areas to address district-specific recruitment and retention needs, teacher residencies are successful. PEBC’s residency model is a complete collaboration with district- and school-level administration, from collaborating to find and select specific candidates who are a match for a school’s openings and culture, to co-creating and providing the support candidates receive throughout their licensure year and early years of development.

With this approach and funding support, the best practices and rigor of teacher preparation are situated within local contexts, and teaching practice is highly responsive to the students in a local community.

(Correction: This post originally had two bylines on it. It was written by only one author, Karen Lowenstein.)