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Small districts see big need for teachers: Schools try creative ways to fill vacancies

First year teacher Shaina Hess listens as her fifth-graders at Minto Elementary school take turns reading "The Odyssey" this week. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

MUNICH -- For one year, Munich Public School students couldn't take a technology class because the district couldn't find someone to teach it.

At a time when schools nationwide are pushing more technology and science into the classroom, the lack of a teacher in 2013-14 put high school students at a disadvantage, especially as they had to take several business classes to qualify for career and technical education scholarships, said Principal Daniel Ludvigson.

"We were unable to provide any programming," he said. "Students didn't really have choices in what to take (for electives) -- we couldn't offer those classes where those students could feel successful and excel."

One reason behind the struggle? The school isn't located close to a city. Devils Lake, N.D., the largest population center near there, is located about 40 miles south of the town.

"We're small," Ludvigson said. "It's not that inviting for a young person, especially if they happen to be single."

It's a problem echoed by superintendents at many rural districts in North Dakota, where the teaching shortage has reached critical levels and the existing pool of new teachers tends to go to bigger cities.

Kirsten Baesler, the state's superintendent of public instruction, recently announced 204 teacher openings remain unfilled statewide as of Dec. 10, a number marking the "highest we've seen."

School superintendents report several challenges: Districts are competing for an ever-thinning group of fresh graduates who tend to be drawn to bigger districts for higher pay, more prestige, shorter commutes and a more active social life, among other reasons. For schools in general, the job itself also requires more training and duties that need to be crammed into the day, and fewer are entering the profession, some have said.

These factors force districts to entice retired teachers back in the classroom, use long-term substitutes, offer more online classes and higher pay to remain competitive.

Next year, a first-year teacher in Munich can make $44,000. That's $4,000 more than what a first-year teacher will make at Grand Forks (N.D.) Public Schools, which has a total student population more than 70 times larger than Munich's school.

"It's going to cause the district financial strain to do that," Ludvigson said. "But it's one of the ways we can get young people to come out here."

Reaching out

Three weeks after Chrystal Nelson finished student teaching, she was leading an English class for middle school students in Devils Lake.

"I was surprised," said Nelson, who graduated in December. "I didn't expect to get a job. I was maybe thinking of being a long-term substitute for six weeks, then having to keep another job."

The transition was quick, but not quick enough for a school that had relied on substitutes and another teacher to fill the spot until Nelson took over last Monday, said Devils Lake Public Schools Superintendent Scott Privratsky. The state licensing board "fast-tracked" Nelson into the classroom by giving her a provisional license, which allows her to teach while certain things are still being finalized, such as official transcripts, he said. Provisional licenses have been offered through the state licensing board since 1999.

Nelson's job was among 19 certified instructing positions the district needed to fill for the year -- representing about 12 percent of its total certified instructional staff -- and proved to be the hardest, he said.

To find her, the district contacted Mayville State University, where she was attending college, as soon as possible. This is a common method used by districts statewide, some superintendents said. Districts also appeal to out-of-state candidates, advertise through word-of-mouth or seek people who don't have an education background, superintendents said.

At Munich Public School, the science teacher is a retired railroad engineer who also happened to have a teaching license, only needing to complete a few practicum classes to renew his license, the principal said.

Subject matter can make a difference, too. Specialty areas such as music, art and agriculture are more difficult to fill, superintendents said, and sometimes colleges don't produce graduates in a certain field some years. Even elementary teacher openings, traditionally the least difficult for districts to fill, see fewer applicants now, they said.

In the past, Central Valley Public School in Buxton, N.D., might attract 50 applicants for an opening, Superintendent Jeremy Brandt said.

"This year, we had three elementary openings and approximately half the candidates that we would have had five years ago," he said.

The shortage problem is felt by districts statewide. Williston Public School District has 11 openings and district enrollment increased by about 180 students this year, Superintendent Viola LaFontaine said recently.

Nationwide, fewer college students are interested in entering the profession. According to a 2014 ACT report, the number of ACT-tested graduates interested in teaching decreased by more than 16 percent. During that same time period, the percentage of students interested in education majors decreased by 3 percent.

In North Dakota, Janet Welk, executive director of the state licensing board, said the number of state students enrolling in education programs continues to decline. However, the state's largest universities do not uniformly track this specific information and data is inconclusive.

Proximity pays off

Grand Forks Public Schools, among the largest districts in the state, doesn't struggle to find candidates in the same way rural ones do, said Tracy Abentroth, the district's human resources manager.

One elementary teacher job, among other elementary openings districtwide, drew 67 applicants, she said. A majority of the applicants -- 75 percent -- come from North Dakota.

One way the district benefits is through its resident teacher program, a joint offering with UND that helps new teachers earn master's degrees while gaining a year of teaching experience at an elementary school.

"That gives us a chance to really see those individuals and how effective they are in the classroom, and they're getting mentored by our teachers in our system," Abentroth said.

The experience is useful, but experience isn't everything nor is it necessarily required for every opening, she said.

"We want the very best candidate out there -- experience doesn't automatically put them ahead," Abentroth said. "We like experience because it brings in different ideas sometimes, but then people fresh out of college have some different perspectives that are useful, too."

Proximity to larger cities can play a big role in attracting -- or deterring -- candidates, according to some superintendents.

For instance, Minto (N.D.) Public School's location works both ways, said Superintendent Linda Lutovsky. New teachers opt for a job in Minto over more distant locations because it's close to Grand Forks, or teachers grow tired of the commute and apply to Grand Forks, she said.

Often, teachers also try gaining a few years' experience in smaller districts before applying to larger ones, which often require applicant experience, she and others said.

Teachers at Starkweather Public School in Starkweather, N.D., can drive 25 miles south to Devils Lake, and the proximity works in the school's favor, said Larry Volk, the new superintendent. They easily filled a social studies and math position for this year, he said. Fewer than a dozen total applied for both jobs.

"We've been very fortunate," he said. "I would say we're an anomaly among the rural districts."

The lack of any teacher is tough, but some key areas are harder to substitute. For now, Munich Public School doesn't plan to replace a family and consumer science teacher, said the principal. Priority has to be given to classes required for students to be college-ready and instructors are hard to find, among other reasons, Ludvigson said.

The school is still trying to fill a part-time preschool opening, which is handled now by a retired teacher. But the school can only do so much, he said.

"There's just not enough people out there applying for these jobs," he said. "If somebody leaves us, there's a good chance we're not able to fill it."