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Staffing Schools in No-Stoplight Towns

The town of Otis, Colo., does have a stoplight and 500 residents. But, like other remote communities in the Rocky Mountain State, it struggles to keep teachers for all its classes.

—Photo by Jeffrey Beall

It takes ingenuity and hard work to find and keep teachers in remote districts

Rangely is one of Colorado’s most isolated school districts. It’s 90 miles from the nearest big city, and the closest major grocery store is an hour’s drive away, across the border in Vernal, Utah. (Bring a few coolers.)

There’s a stark beauty to the high desert surrounding Rangely, which is also home to some of the best fishing, hunting, and outdoor sporting in the state. But there’s no doubt that the town of about 2,300 is also small and remote.

“We did lose our stoplight,” joked Jamie Trusa, the physical education teacher at Parkview Elementary, the district’s lone elementary school. “Are we still considered a town?”

It’s hard to keep teachers, too: Every year, about 15 percent to 20 percent leave, Superintendent Matt Scoggins estimates.

Three hundred miles away on the state’s eastern plains sits the town of Otis, which, though smaller, with about 500 people, does have a stoplight. But it, too, struggles with keeping its two schools’ classes all covered.

The teacher-hiring and -retention plight is a real one for the United States’ rural, remote districts, but the special nature of the staffing challenges they face can get lost in policy discussions, which often lump together very different communities under the banner of “rural.”

An Education Week Research Center analysis of the most recent federal data indicates that about 18 percent of school districts nationwide are considered remote and rural—meaning they are at least 25 miles away from a city of at least 50,000 people and 10 miles from a town of at least 2,500 people. These districts educate about 2 percent of all U.S. students.

Colorado has an unusually high proportion of rural, remote districts, even though other states educate more students overall in such places. Taken together, though, the data points suggest that Colorado’s far-flung districts are unusually small and isolated, compared with those in other states.

What that means is when towns like Rangely or Otis lose a teacher, they aren’t left with just an instructional gap. They’re losing a coach, a neighbor, and a member of a small, close-knit family, with reverberations that extend far beyond the school building.

“It really can change kids’ trajectories; sometimes, you can’t find someone who will continue to challenge students,” said Kendra Anderson, the superintendent in Otis. “It’s a panic when someone says they’re resigning.”

Finding Talent

Both Rangely and Otis are far from the Front Range, which is what Coloradans call the thread of cities and towns along I-25, the state’s major north-south highway. Housing costs are significantly cheaper, but sundries and food often aren’t, given the captive market.

The teaching job itself often demands more, too.

“One of the most frustrating parts of being a teacher in rural schools is you’re expected to do so much more,” said Mollie Dreitz, an agricultural education teacher new to Otis. “My plate is 100 percent full—there is literally almost a meeting or somewhere you have to be every evening, and it’s exhausting.”

Special education teachers in remote communities, in particular, often have crushing caseloads. And across the board, salaries are typically lower—about $35,000 on average in Otis and $44,000 in Rangely, compared with $51,000 in Denver, according to state data.

In Otis, an influx of people from the Front Range seeking cheaper housing is elevating poverty levels in schools, and remote rural schools also have higher poverty levels in general.

All that makes finding top talent tough, especially considering that most of the state’s teacher-preparation programs are located in urban areas.

“There’s this line of 30 or 50 students there,” said Scoggins, recalling the last college job fair he attended in Grand Junction, Colo., “and I felt like a used-car salesman trying to talk to them about Rangely. They don’t even know where it is, let alone have an interest in working here.”

Over the years, he’s filled his classrooms with teachers recruited from out of state via online advertising on sites like Teachers-Teachers.com.

Anderson, who grew up on the eastern plains herself, said she’s had some success with alternative-certification programs that help adults with bachelor’s degrees—sometimes farmers or bankers—become teachers, though she worries they’re not a permanent solution.

“It might not be their calling or passion, but they’re trying to help out their local district,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s been the most effective approach.”

Better yet is the deep network of connections she’s developed after having lived on the plains for decades, and that she’s always expanding.

Dreitz, the new agriculture education teacher, was actually once her kindergarten pupil. And Anderson found her new high school English teacher, Caitlin Evans, after meeting her mom at a conference.

No connection, it seems, goes unexplored.

Standing Out

When Emma Curtis graduated from her agricultural education program in 2017, there were 27 openings for teachers in Colorado districts. In effect, she had her choice of places and knew she’d likely end up leaving Fort Collins, Colo., to teach in a small community.

So if you’re a district, how do you stand out from the pack to a would-be teacher like Curtis?

Scoggins is confident that Rangely is an attractive place to teach—if he can get applicants to come visit. And that was the case for Curtis.

The high school had the most up-to-date shop equipment she’d ever seen and a huge facility. Her predecessor on the job—now her principal, Crandal Mergelman—acted as an interpreter of sorts, explaining the community and the realities of living in a small place, showing her the local technical college, and concluded by inviting her to dinner to meet his family.

Curtis didn’t hesitate: She accepted the job.

“Really, honestly, truly, I would say it’s because of him and the hospitality of the teaching staff here,” she said. “My personality and who I am really fit with them, and I think that’s what it’s about. If you don’t get along with your colleagues, work’s not fun.”

Teachers say one age-old factor can also make a difference for applicants: salary. Rangely, under Scoggins’ leadership, has made strides boosting starting teacher salaries; its average now puts it in the top half of the state’s 178 districts.

But districts’ ability to pay a premium wage is often limited by circumstance. Otis is surrounded by farmland rather than big industries, which means that it’s harder to pass bonds or tax increases to raise funding for salaries.

Retaining Talent

Getting teachers in is only half the story in remote, rural districts, of course; keeping them is the other.

All the teachers interviewed said they trusted and valued their administrators and felt that they had a fair amount of autonomy—factors that kept them on the job.

Evans, Otis’ new high school English/language arts teacher, formerly taught at the undergraduate level and now teaches dual-enrollment classes. She said she’s had a lot of freedom to update the curriculum to match the higher expectations of college coursework.

“They’ve been really open to my ideas—they let me order new textbooks at the beginning of the year that were more aligned with the college-preparatory route,” she said. “They’re pretty open in terms of what I want to include in the curriculum.”

Trusa, the physical education teacher, came to Rangely all the way from Pennsylvania. He, too, cited administration as the most important factor for why he’s stayed for three years.

“These guys are on our side,” he said. “They listen to any kind of concern we have. They are the true definition of administrators.”

Because schools in such places are often the social center of the community, too, and a lifeline for teachers without family nearby, feeling welcomed is especially important. Dreitz, now in her fourth year of teaching overall, said she left her first job at a small district because she persistently felt like she was being treated as an outsider.

“A lot of times in small towns you don’t fit if you’re not from that area, if that makes sense,” she said. It’s different in Otis, close to her hometown of Akron, Colo., and where the administration is more supportive.

Maintaining top relationships with teachers, the leaders say, not only can be the deciding factor in whether an individual teacher stays or goes but can also help prevent other districts from trying to poach talent—a real concern in such a competitive hiring environment.

“I can think right off the top of my head of three districts I can easily steal teachers from that had difficulties at the school board level, which resulted in turnover in the administration and insecurities for the teaching staff,” Anderson said.

Other perks do help, of course. Although the evidence is limited on how it affects student achievement, the teachers generally say they like their districts’ four-day work weeks, which give them time to explore Colorado and visit friends in the cities.

And in Rangely, Trusa just received a $3,000 bonus offered to teachers who complete three years with the district. Though not the predominant factor in staying, it was definitely a consideration, he said.

The overall lesson of these two Colorado districts: There is no single recruitment or retention strategy that will work; instead, approaches need to be tailored to individual applicants.

Best Practices?

But Colorado officials do think they can build a better working set of best practices. In 2016, the state helped create the Colorado Center for Rural Education at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, to suss them out.

Among other measures, the center is experimenting with placing student-teachers in rural districts and offering them a stipend, so they have more opportunities to learn about those communities and consider teaching in them. It’s also tried practical strategies, bringing freshly minted teachers on buses to visit some of the farther-out districts.

The strategies are welcomed by the districts, although superintendents also say their own experiences often show how truly complex it can be to judge their impact. A prime example may be “grow your own” programs, which aim to get high school students interested in a teaching career, so that one day they’ll return years later to teach in the schools that nurtured them.

Anderson is a fan of the idea but also recognizes its limitations. Sometimes it’s better, she thinks, for a new teacher to find his or her footing in a larger, better-resourced district with more opportunities for professional development before coming to Otis, where the workload can be high and the resources fewer.

As for the teachers interviewed for this story, none can say definitively if they’re going to stay in Otis or Rangely. But for now, they can’t imagine leaving.

Though still in her first year of teaching, Curtis is, as they say, “settling in.” She got to be one of the judges in the recreation center’s baby Christmas dress-up contest. (Way better than having a movie theater.)

“It’s hard being away from Fort Collins and my friends,” she said, “but the longer I stay here and the relationships I build—I see myself staying for a while.”

Vol. 37, Issue 18, Pages 22-23, 25

Published in Print: January 24, 2018, as Staffing Schools in No-Stoplight Towns

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