School district in rural Colorado tries new ways to attract teachers

2019-11-19 19:43:02

As rural communities across the country struggle to recruit and retain teachers, one school district in a small Colorado town is trying new tactics to attract educators. The Big Sandy School District in Simla invited undergrads from the University of Colorado into their classrooms, hoping to inspire the aspiring teachers to work in a similar setting some day, CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan reports.

Simla is a ranching community about 50 miles from Colorado Springs, where the university is. The Big Sandy School District has 335 students from grades pre-K to 12th grade who learn under one roof.

“When you bring in prospective teachers to your school, what are they telling you they need?” Duncan asked.

“Salary was a big thing, key thing. And that gets brought up every year at the state level,” Superintendent Steve Wilson said. In Colorado, rural teachers are among the lowest paid in any state.

“Also … there’s just a whole bunch more being dumped on educators than used to be. It’s not as respected as much,” Wilson said. “It’s just a tougher … profession than it used to be.”

Fifteen years ago, Wilson said there were about 30 candidates for every job opening. But, in the last few years, some postings have attracted zero applicants.

“Our high school principal … she happened to be at a restaurant and the waitress said that she was trying to become a teacher through an alternative licensure program,” Wilson said. They hired her and helped expedite that process, he said.

The teachers-in-training visited some of the classrooms, including Holly Koehn’s kindergarten class.

“What do you see as some of the major problems facing rural school districts?” Duncan asked Koehn.

“Affordable housing is probably the number one,” she said. “You know, we do live farther out, so the prices of things are higher. You know, you go to the grocery store in a small community, you’re going to pay a higher price than you would at a King Soopers.”

The 26-year-old said she struggles to pay student loans and make ends meet on her $35,000 a year teaching salary. To cut the costs, last year, she lived in a camper in a field outside of school.

“What kept you going while you were living in that trailer?” Duncan asked.

“Just coming to school every day and seeing the children and just making bonds with them,” Koehn said.

Mary Bauer, another teacher, said the job “has to be something you truly love.” She chose to come back to the school district in 2018 after leaving in 2013 to be close to her husband and their home near Denver, about 90 miles away. She now stays with her sister in Simla during the week.

Bauer returned to teach Spanish after the district failed to find a qualified teacher. “They lost their Spanish teacher right at the beginning of the school year and tried online, and it was pretty difficult for them,” she said.

“A lot of the kids had to go back and repeat the year that they lost,” she said. “They were that far behind.”

But coaxing former teachers and retirees back into the classroom is a Band-Aid solution.

“You’re expecting upwards of eight to 10 teachers to retire in the next five years. What do you do then?” Duncan asked Wilson.

“Yeah, that’s a tough thing,” he said. “Some schools are in that boat right now, and … I think we’re shortchanging our students.”

Wilson hopes that some of the college students who visited return as teachers. He asked them during their visit if they are interested in working at a rural school in the future.

All of them raised their hands.

Wilson asked them what changed their mind. One student said, “Everyone’s kind of in it together, and I really like that aspect.”

“I went to a high school where I graduated with 300 people, and to think that this school has 300 kids from preschool to 12th grade just, like, blows my mind because everybody knows each other,” another said. “And just to think that you could, like, work in a school with that kind of community, that bond, I just, I want to be a part of it.”

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