Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Wanted: Teachers willing to work 'in the middle of nowhere'

Rural school districts may not have gyms or Thai food, but a variety of programs aim to show young teachers they can make a real difference in small town America.

Jessica Reilly /Telegraph Herald/AP
Second-grader Acxel Ortiz-Hernandez reads last May at Darlington Elementary-Middle School in Darlington, Wisconsin, which has a population of about 2,400. Recruiting teachers in rural areas is difficult, but communities are trying new approaches to fill vacancies.

During a bus ride outside of the Orlando, Fla., city limits this spring, Yvonne Clark didn’t know what to expect.

“You have this picture of a place in the middle of nowhere, [with] no resources. You think, ‘Is it going to be a terrible situation?’ ”  Ms. Clark remembers thinking. A University of Central Florida (UCF) education student, Clark participated in the school’s Planting Seeds program, which as of January sends student teachers into rural areas populated with low-income migrant workers – areas desperate for teachers.

“You get in there and it was completely different. I think it should be mandatory that teachers are given this opportunity,” she says, “seeing that these children deserve the same kind of education. It definitely changes your perspective.”

As states scramble to fill vacancies before school starts in the fall, those tasked with bringing teachers and pupils together in rural areas are relying on a variety of efforts – such as exposure from programs like Planting Seeds – to help them. From town hall meetings to persuading town natives to return, administrators and state education leaders are looking for better ways to woo teachers to places without the amenities of urban destinations.

Their task is made more difficult by the fact that the United States is currently experiencing an unprecedented teacher shortage due to high teacher attrition, increasing student enrollment, and efforts to reduce pupil-teacher ratios, according to a 2016 study by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). By 2018, the US is predicted to need an additional 112,000 teachers to meet the country’s education demands, with rural communities particularly hard hit. If current trends continue, the supply gap is expected to widen even further.

Rural districts, which make up more than a quarter of US schools, are at a competitive disadvantage, say researchers, because they don’t have the tax base to prop up comparable teaching salaries. According to a recent study published by the Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT), rural teachers make, on average, $57,798, compared with $68,850 for urban teachers, and $70,830 for suburban.

“The inequalities that we have in our school funding systems show up in rural districts,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, president of LPI and co-author of that organization’s recent study on teacher shortages. “We talk about urban schools, and high-needs students in cities, [while] kind of ignoring the high-need rural communities that also exist… It goes under the radar.”

A dearth of qualified teachers

One of those communities is Aberdeen, Miss., where the population is less than 5,500 and the poverty rate is 35 percent.

The first day of school is less than a month away, and Aberdeen Elementary School is still searching for a new special education teacher. Experience isn’t required, says Principal Leigh Todd. Last year, for example, the school hired a former factory worker with some experience teaching music.

“There were times when we wouldn't have any applicants,” says Principal Todd, who is retiring this summer after working in Mississippi public education for 27 years. “Pretty much the [entire] state is a critical shortage area right now.”

Many teachers are reluctant to move to rural districts because they lack many amenities sought by college-educated professionals. One school in southern central Colorado, for example, had a difficult time staffing teachers because there was no gym or coffee shop in the town, explains Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education.

“By and large, the early teacher is young, out of college, and they want access to live music and Thai food,” says Jerry Johnson, an education professor at UCF and co-author of the recent report on national rural education by RSCT. “It’s tough to recruit them to go live in a community that doesn't necessarily have those things.”

Changing perspectives

However, communities across the country are looking past culinary and monetary difficulties and experimenting with local solutions to close the teacher gap, such as teacher training and grow-your-own programs.

Many young teachers are eager to make a difference, an incentive that education professionals can capitalize on, says Dr. Johnson.

“It’s largely a matter of exposure,” he explains. “Give them an opportunity to see the benefits of living in that community and experience it firsthand.”

Because of her experience in the Planting Seeds program, Clark is considering working in a rural district after graduation – a prospect she had not previously considered. The program was funded by a grant obtained by Johnson and his colleagues. Six students participated this year, but thanks to good reviews from both UCF students and partner schools, additional funding is being sought to expand the program next year.

Another key is focusing on understanding the perspectives of those in the towns themselves. To address teacher recruitment issues, Colorado’s Department of Education scheduled 10 town hall meetings across the state this summer. At the first meeting in June in Ridgway, Colo., a town of less than 1,000 people, Ms. O’Neil learned that residents didn’t consider teaching a “good career.”

Working in favor of small towns is the fact that studies have shown that teachers are more likely to return to their hometown, which can be helpful when they have a smaller pool of eligible educators to begin with. But observers say towns have to cultivate this resource. 

“If you are from this area and you go to college to become a teacher, are you going to go back home?” asks Kenneth Anthony, an education professor at Mississippi State University. “The people who leave these communities are the most capable of turning these communities around.”

Shifting this mindset through “Grow Your Own” programs is the most effective solution to rural teacher shortages – along with uplifting the local workforce – agrees Dr. Darling-Hammond.

“You can entice some people [into a rural district], but they may not stay very long,” she says. “It is often better to work with folks who know they want to be in the community… [W]ork with kids who are coming out of high school, see them through college, do collaborative teaching programs to create teacher residencies while also getting them certified.”

The education community is working on filling in such gaps, with those who are both familiar and new to rural areas. In addition to UCF’s Planting Seeds program, last year The University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley received a $2.2 million state grant to address rural shortages, creating the Colorado Center for Rural Education. Through the center, students enrolled in a teacher preparatory program at a Colorado college can apply for a $2,800 stipend to student teach in a rural district for a semester. Stipend recipients are expected to apply for a position in a rural school district after graduation.

The center has funding to supply 200 stipends over the next five years. This spring, 23 student teachers took advantage of the pilot program and another 22 stipends have already been awarded for the fall. The school is in the process of getting feedback from the students and seeing how it influenced their decisions.

"The financial aspect is huge," says Harvey Rude, director of the center. "Most student teachers think that it would be really great to be in the bright lights of the big cities.... But the reality is there are great opportunities for teachers who would commit to student teaching in rural districts. We want to offer this as an incentive for them."

In Colorado, where 83 percent of school districts are rural, as many as 3,000 teachers are needed ahead of the upcoming school year.  

“We are never going to get away from the money conversation,” says Colorado’s O’Neil. “But those grassroots efforts that the community can do… to mentor teachers and [gain] friends who support you – it's really important.”

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct Kenneth Anthony's last name.]

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