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Filling the gaps: Amidst teacher shortage, schools try to fill positions before year starts

Press Photo by Dustin Monke Sister Annette Dobitz hangs letters in her classroom at Trinity High School on Tuesday in preparation for the new school year.

As the entire state of North Dakota faces a critical shortage of teachers, local schools are hurrying to fill remaining openings before the new year starts later this month.

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The North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders reported hundreds of teacher openings across the state, and closer to home, schools are feeling the effects of the shortage.

“There have been a lot of sleepless nights,” said Rev. Kregg Hochhalter, the dean of students at Trinity High School who is the first contact for new teacher applicants at the school.

In May, his school lost a total of eight teachers; and an additional one left over the summer.

“That’s over a third of our faculty,” he said. “That’s a big chunk.”

As of Tuesday, Trinity had only a physical education position to fill.

Hochhalter said the two most difficult subject areas to recruit teachers were music and Spanish. Nationwide, finding teachers to fill those position has become a problem. Both made a list of almost 20 subjects the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education named as “teacher shortage areas” in the 2014-15 school year.

Hochhalter said he has faith that the school will be able to fill the positions, but even after finding seven new hires over the summer, he said it won’t be easy.

“It’s been incredibly difficult because at Trinity High School, it’s not about finding teachers,” he said. “It’s about finding the right teachers.”

Trinity is facing its own unique challenge of extensive reconstructions over the ensuing school year, following a damaging spring fire. But schools across Dickinson are up against barriers common across oil boom communities.

“A lot has to do with the cost of living,” said Cyndee Egeness, the human resources administrative assistant for Dickinson Public Schools.

The number of applicants are down from recent years, Egeness said. Elementary education positions used to receive up to 80 applicants. Now job openings will draw in between 40 to 50 applicants.

The district had 49 open positions at the end of the school year, of which all but two have been filled, Egeness said. A science teacher opening at Dickinson High School has yet to receive an applicant. Neither has a new English Language Learner specialist position.

Schools do what they can to entice teachers to become more appealing than their neighbors — from higher salaries to subsidized housing — but “there’s only so much a district can pay,” said Kevin Moberg, chair of the department of education at Dickinson State University.

Trinity’s starting salary is $30,000. Dickinson Public School teachers can start at $38,400, according to 2013-14 contract numbers. Neither offers subsidized housing, but both Hochhalter and Egeness said they assist teachers in finding reasonable housing in town.

“I think schools are having to do some creative things to attract candidates,” Moberg said.

Roughly 50 elementary education students are enrolled in his department across the Dickinson and Bismarck campuses, and more take coursework for education degrees in other subjects, he said, even that can’t keep up with the demand for teachers in the area.

“We’re for sure seeing when local schools are calling and asking if we have candidates for them, they’re getting hired right away,” he said.

It’s an employee’s market. New graduates and experienced teachers have their pick of jobs, and can be more selective about where they go.

Despite some challenges to living around the Bakken, Moberg said there is an upside to finding a job in the area.

“It’s a good time to be a teacher in western North Dakota,” he said. “Better benefits package, better salary.”

Moberg stressed a “note of optimism for our graduates is how good the job market is for them.”

It’s a message his department will be taking to Dickinson High School this fall with a pilot program to teach an introduction to education course to DHS students. Moberg said he hopes it will inspire high schoolers to consider a career in education, particularly one in a southwest North Dakota school.

“The growth of our local schools means more and more students need more good teachers,” he said.

Hochhalter said that despite the difficulties he has faced this summer trying to round out his staff before school begins, he sees “a beautiful opportunity” in bringing in so many new teachers this year — many from out of state.

“A lot of people come in (to Dickinson) and are making twice of what teachers make,” he said. “That helps us. It creates the right people who aren’t in it for the paycheck, but are in for the hearts and minds of kids.”

Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207 or tweet her at NadyaFaulx