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Fewer teachers entering field leads to statewide concern

Fifth grade teacher Julie Kelly works with students, from left, Alexis Usher, Madelyn Evink and Ava Godwin on a language arts project where the students created a noun town called "English Tour Guide of Swedesville." (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)

Minnesota schools are facing a teacher shortage and the problem could get worse for rural districts.

A state report released earlier this month shows trends that indicate a growing shortage of teachers throughout the state.

The Park Rapids, Menahga and Nevis school districts are no different as they look to fill full-time teaching positions from a shrinking pool of candidates. Math, science and special education are among the areas where the shortage shows up most.

A number of factors contribute to this trend, including fewer people going to college to be a teacher, students leaving rural communities to live in metro areas and districts trying to offer competitive pay. All factor into the equation. State legislators are also looking at streamlining the teacher licensing process in hopes it will open up opportunities for educators coming out of college.

"It is difficult for many prospective teachers to obtain Minnesota teaching licenses," said Lance Bagstad, Park Rapids Area Schools superintendent. "Minnesota maintains rigorous standards and requires all teachers to be highly qualified. The licensure process does impact many people who would make wonderful teachers."

There is definitely a shortage and it shows up in the number of applicants for openings, says Menahga School Superintendent Kevin Wellen. His district had three teacher openings last year and they had under 10 applicants.

Where schools used to get dozens of qualified applicants in previous years for a teacher position, now they see far fewer.

"When you go from 100-plus down to 10, that's a dramatic change," he said. "If we get 10 to 15 now we're doing well."

Wellen had to get creative this year to fill a physics teacher position. He hired two teachers to split time in teaching the one position. Both had prior commitments and could not teach the entire school year.

Wellen needed someone to teach physics and happened to run into a retired teacher one night at dinner. He had been retired eight years and Wellen talked him into returning to the classroom, with conditions. Wellen had to promise him time off the middle of the school year. Wellen was then lucky enough to find a new teacher, whom he says wasn't planning on teaching this year, to teach until May. The retired teacher will return in May when the new teacher leaves.

Creative, non-traditional staffing.

"They're both quality people," Wellen said. "We found good ones, and had I not run into him at dinner that night we'd be scrambling."

Gregg Parks, Nevis School superintendent, said the shortage started to affect his district over the past several years.

"We initially noticed that the number of applicants for positions had dropped dramatically from 30 or so applicants to under 10," Parks said. "The areas that we see most affected are science, math, foreign language and special education teachers."

The number of the non-licensed "community experts" working in Minnesota schools has more than doubled from 367 in the 2011-12 school year to 861 in the 2015-16 school year. Schools may hire "community experts," who are not legally required to have a college degree, when an appropriately licensed teacher is not available.

Park Rapids does not currently use community experts. Menahga hired a community expert last year who went on to earn a teaching license in special education. Nevis currently has three teachers operating under variances to cover classes that they are not licensed to teach.

Parks says he believes the teacher shortage is due to a combination of events. Teaching salaries and benefits have not kept pace with many other industries in the U.S. Also, there are increased demands put on teachers.

"Teaching is very demanding today with a lot of emphasis on test scores versus teaching kids to be creative and curious. This creates high stress for teaching and many young teachers choose to leave education within the first five years," Parks said.

He believes Minnesota has an onerous system for obtaining a teaching license, and that contributes to the issue facing districts. Prospective teachers have to pass numerous tests within their license area, according to Parks. Students are required to take the Minnesota Teaching Licensure Exam (MTLE) and tests on pedagogy, and finally tests within their area of expertise. Each of these tests cost the student out of their own pocket.

"Not all good students are good at taking tests," Parks said. "This scares many would-be teachers away from the profession. In many cases the most creative people are not good test takers but they are great teachers who have a gift that cannot be measured on a formal assessment."

The 2017 Report of Teacher Supply and Demand in Minnesota's Public Schools was released earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Education. According to this report, the number of teachers reported as leaving their positions has increased 46 percent since 2008-09. Resignations for personal or unspecified reasons are the most common teachers leave their jobs, surpassing retirements, promotions, transfers to other schools, layoffs or terminations for performance.

A competitive job market and low salaries for teachers are considered the two biggest barriers to retaining teacher, and schools are finding it more difficult to hire short-term and long-term substitutes.

Local districts are always looking at attracting new teachers to the area by highlighting the good things their schools are doing, what the communities offer and possibly financial incentives. Teachers can pursue federal loan repayment programs and districts consider signing bonuses for teachers who commit for a certain number of years.

Bagstad said the Park Rapids school district works with teachers who qualify for loan repayment programs and is willing to assist in those regards. District staff may have the opportunity through the special education region to qualify for scholarships to earn Sped credentials.

Districts are always recruiting potential teachers who may not be familiar with the area.

"When you're looking for the opportunity to get them here, unless they came up here on vacation as a kid they don't go through Menahga or Park Rapids as a general trend," Wellen said. "When they do come here they see how nice of an area it is."

School administrators look to highlight the positives their districts can provide, Menahga's new building project for example.

Bagstad says they do the same in showing potential teachers what the area has to offer.

"Park Rapids is a beautiful place to live and raise a family," he said. "The school has great facilities, solid fund balance, low class sizes and opportunities for students to be active, involved, challenged and successful."

Teacher pay needs to catch up to pay in the private sector. A teacher starts out at $38,000 annual salary Factor in high college debt, and it's tough to compete with jobs that pay $50,000 to $60,000.

Residents in non-urban counties who work full-time are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to live in poverty. Median incomes in urban areas top all other geography types by about $10,000, a trend which generally applies to teachers.

Although cost of living usually is lower outside of bigger cities, Assistant State Demographer Andi Egbert said the disparity raised concern in her department.

"Your take-home pay is your starting point for how you make decisions about how you plan for the future, and non-urban Minnesotans are at a disadvantage," she said. "They simply don't have as much take-home pay for the same amount of effort."

To help offset some of the financial struggles teachers in rural may face, Nolan said the rural education association will push for legislation to increase loan forgiveness in areas of service shortage.

The group also supports legislation to simplify the state's teacher licensure process.

A bill working its way through the Senate calls for a restructuring of the licensure process, which would create a tiered licensing system to expand the types of licensing teachers could receive.

For example, professionals in trades like welding and construction could obtain instructor licenses to teach their skills in schools.

Senate E-12 Finance Chair Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said the new system would streamline what she called a "broken" process.

"Our current system has too many very narrow-focused areas, and then they only cover a very narrow band of grade levels," she said. "We want to keep our highly-qualified teachers, we want to make it less onerous for qualified teachers from other states who transfer to get licensure in Minnesota, and encourage more people to enter the teaching field."

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