College of Education teams up with Colorado school districts to find solutions to rural teacher shortage

See: A recent feature by CBS News followed UCCS students to the Big Sandy School District in Simla, Colorado where undergraduates students got to experience a rural school district.

Things are tough for educators in Colorado. Despite a need for more than 3,000 new teachers to fill existing spots in Colorado classrooms, teacher pay continues to decline compared to the national average. Fewer students are graduating from the state’s teacher preparation programs. And nearly a third of teachers in Colorado are 55 or older, closing in on retirement age.

Filling teaching posts in metro areas can be difficult in and of itself. Of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 146 are rural – an even tougher sell for new teachers.

“There’s a teaching shortage nationally, in Colorado, and especially in rural Colorado,” said Valerie Sherman, the rural education coordinator for the Colorado Center for Rural Education (CCRE).

According to the Colorado Department of Higher Education, “The shortages are more pronounced in rural and remote rural areas where we find unique challenges driven by inadequate teacher compensation, lack of affordable housing, and difficulty attracting new teachers to rural communities.” The report goes on to state that there is a particular shortage of minority educators and those equipped to teach science, math, world languages, special education and the arts.

But by pooling resources and generating creative solutions, the CCRE is working to turn the rural teacher shortage around, in part by working with universities across the state – including UCCS.

Representatives from the College of Education spoke with the community at a resource fair following the rural education gathering at UCCS Downtown.

In October, faculty and staff from the College of Education, representatives from the CCRE and teachers from rural Colorado school districts gathered at UCCS Downtown to brainstorm solutions to the shortage and share best practices.

“We wanted to listen to them and find out their needs,” said Karen Halverson, the director of teacher education, licensure programs and field experience in the College of Education of the gathering. “We wanted to hear their concerns about partnerships with universities and teacher preparation programs, and how we, at UCCS, can go about establishing better partnerships with our rural district members.”

Already, creative solutions generated by UCCS faculty and the CCRE abound.

“One of the things we do is provide access for individuals to learn more about rural Colorado,” Sherman said. “We do rural field trips – we get people on a bus and we go visit a series of rural school districts. That way, students can learn what it’s like to be a teacher in a rural school district.”

“Those tend to win hearts,” she added.

“We often have a misperception about things we don’t know or don’t understand,” Halverson said. “So these van trips really give students an opportunity to visit a rural district and get a much better idea of what it’s like to be a teacher there. That’s the first step towards getting them interested in being a teacher in a rural area.”

In January, education professor Robert Mitchell took the field trip idea a step further. Together with associate professor and chair of the Education Department at Colorado College Mike Taber, he took 20 students from UCCS and Colorado College on a two week “rural immersion” program. The students toured school districts in southern Colorado – Kim, Pritchett, Walsh, Springfield, Campo and Vilas – to experience the ups and downs of teaching in tiny, close-knit school districts.

UCCS undergraduates travel to Simla, a ranching community about 50 miles from Colorado Springs, to experience a rural school district first-hand. Photo credit: CBS This Morning.

Sherman highlighted how different the rural teaching experience can be from teaching in one of Colorado’s 32 urban districts.

“The school is the single largest employer in these communities,” she said. “It’s the center of the community. There are two or three students per grade in the Kim school district.”

“But on a Friday night for a volleyball game,” she said, “500 people will pack the gym. It’s the place where people come to connect with each other.”

When asked what might surprise students about teaching in a rural district, Sherman answered, “The amount of support. The innovation. The ability to make connections, real and meaningful connections, with students that last for a long time.”

She continued, “When you are a student teacher interviewing in the Cherry Creek district, you meet your principal and assistant principal – maybe. In a rural school district, you meet the principal, the superintendent, the students, their parents.”

“The investment that administrators make into their first-year teachers and student teachers is a sign of how valued those individuals are by the school and the community,” she said. “There’s a real difference compared to what they’re receiving in urban districts.”

CBS This Morning features a classroom at The Big Sandy School. Photo credit: CBS This Morning.

Beyond field trips to immerse students in rural life, Sherman and the CCRE work to bring grant money to rural school districts. They help fund a mini-grant program that fuels relationships between universities and rural school districts, aimed at addressing the districts’ local needs. The CCRE’s Future Rural Teaching Summit helps students from rural high schools learn what it would be like to teach in the school districts where they grew up. The summit is part of a move for rural school districts to “grow their own” teachers.

Still, some of the most impactful work Sherman and the CCRE do is to simply provide stipends to help new teachers overcome obstacles to rural teaching. With salaries for rural teachers typically falling under $35,000 a year, any financial support can make a difference, especially for younger teachers paying off student loans.

“We’re starting our fourth year, and we’ve awarded over $1.3 million to 304 individuals throughout Colorado,” Sherman said. “The stipends help them to do student teaching in a rural school district, to get nationally board certified and to provide support for those individuals who are in alternative licensure programs.”

Sherman hopes the stipends will help develop a pipeline of prospective rural educators.

Flyers about UCCS College of Education academic programs fill a table at the recent resource fair.

“One of the stipends we provide is for alternative licensure,” she said, “which are expensive, but fill a huge need in helping schools fill their vacant positions. I just got an email this morning from one of the recipients in Bayfield, Colorado. She’s a first-year teacher, and she just received the stipend for her program.”

“She told me in her email, ‘This is life-changing for a first-year teacher’.”

Though the outlook for rural teachers can look bleak, the College of Education has no plans to stop working with Colorado’s rural school districts to find solutions to the shortage.

“We really want to be collaborative partners with our rural districts,” Halverson said. “We don’t want it to end here. We want it to extend into the future.”

And Sherman feels confident that if enough prospective teachers see the reality of working in a rural school district, they might feel pulled to Colorado’s small communities with huge potential to make a difference.

“I tell our teachers, ‘Go where you’re needed the most,’” Sherman said. “I want more people to experience the magic of rural. That’s my goal.”

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