Skip to contents
Education

Teachers living in campers: How rural Colorado districts are coping with growing teacher shortage

High turnover, pay below cost-of-living has rural districts hiring from restaurants, coaxing retirees back into the classroom and scouting overseas to fill positions

Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn reads to students at the Big Sandy School on Feb. 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Steve Wilson has spent 35 years in education in rural Colorado, the past 14 as superintendent of the Big Sandy School District that stretches across ranchland in Elbert and El Paso counties.

In his second year as superintendent there, four teachers retired, wiping out more than 132 years of experience. Back then, the vacancies posed no problem. He had about 30 applicants for each position and quickly filled them all.

Last year, when he lost eight of the 36 teachers on his staff, he faced a far different situation. He was lucky to get any interest for critical teaching posts. He didn’t even have a science teacher until his principal recruited the waitress serving her at the Purple Toad Social Tap & Grill in Falcon to come on board.

Wilson and other school administrators in Colorado face a dire situation when it comes to filling teaching vacancies, according to statistics collected by the state, salary surveys and interviews with state and local officials. Teachers, frustrated by low salaries and increasing education mandates, are quitting the profession at a rapid rate, particularly in rural areas. And those defections are projected to worsen, with nearly a third of the state’s teachers becoming eligible for retirement over the next few years. Meanwhile, fewer people are training to be educators.

Steve Wilson, superintendent of Big Sandy Schools, shows on a map the more than 500 square miles that make up his district. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The teacher is the biggest piece of student learning,” Wilson said. “When we go down to nobody applying, or getting just one or two applicants, and when we don’t have a pool to choose from, it’s got to affect student learning. I see big red flags. Not just for us, but others as well.”

Colorado schools must fill about 5,000 vacancies annually, the Colorado Department of Education estimates. Despite that need, the number of students graduating from education preparation programs at Colorado’s colleges and universities plunged more than 24 percent to 2,472 in 2016 from 3,274 in 2011. The number of graduates with education degrees ticked up modestly in 2017 before dropping again last year.

As a result, Colorado must lure about half of its teachers from outside the state, which makes them vulnerable to recruitment for higher-paying salaries elsewhere. One survey found 94 percent of the school districts in Colorado in 2017 paid an average teacher salary below the cost of living in those districts.

Online classes, teachers from other countries

Delivering an education under the challenging circumstances requires school districts to get creative.

Students taking online courses increased to 2,124 last year, 40 percent higher than the online enrollment in 2010. Schools also are hiring more teachers enrolled in alternative licensure programs, which allow people with established careers in non-teaching fields, such as accounting, to become teachers. About 857 of the nearly 52,000 teachers in the state were seeking alternative licensure last year, 30 percent more than were doing so in 2010.

Still, online classes and recruiting from non-teaching professions only fill so many gaps, school administrators throughout Colorado say. Even districts that offer free or subsidized housing say they struggle to fill positions. Several school districts in Eastern Colorado resorted to recruiting teachers from the Philippines for hard-to-fill math teaching positions. School districts can recruit overseas so long as the teacher they hire has a visa, passes a background check and applies for licensure.

Spanish teacher Mary Bauer reads with Simla High School junior Toby Lee at the Big Sandy School on Feb. 25, 2019. Bauer was recruited to the district after a plan to use online instruction for Spanish classes failed. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Every time someone retires or moves on it’s an anxiety-provoking experience that you are now faced with not a good hiring situation,” said Shawn Ehnes, superintendent in the Julesburg School District, near the Nebraska border.

When he had to find a math teacher two years ago, he conducted a nationwide search but couldn’t find anyone to even visit for a final job interview. He hired a teacher from the Philippines.

“Anymore, if you can hold on to a teacher for two to three years, that’s a long time,” Ehnes said, stressing that the Filipino teacher has worked out well.

Wilson, the Big Sandy superintendent, faced significant challenges staffing up after losing a slew of teachers last year. About 320 students attend the district’s sole school in Simla, a ranching community 50 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. The school has a proud tradition of educational excellence, Wilson said. While providing a recent tour, he pointed out plaques hanging on the school’s walls from the Colorado Department of Education recognizing the school’s high performance.

But Wilson fears that history of quality instruction could be endangered by statewide teacher shortages. He couldn’t find anybody to teach any of the Spanish language classes last year. The school had to enroll students in an online course, which Wilson said left many of them bewildered and behind schedule.

“We crashed and burned on that,” Wilson said. “Our freshmen weren’t ready for the rigor and self-discipline for the online program we chose. The kids got bad grades. We lost a whole year of instruction.”

He persuaded a former Spanish teacher to come back to teach this year. She lives in Highlands Ranch, a 90-minute drive from the school in Simla. During the four-day school week the teacher stays for free in a home in Simla owned by her sister.

“She’s been first rate,” Wilson said. “Thank you, Lord.”

Teacher living in a fifth-wheel

This year, he also coaxed teachers out of retirement to fill vacancies and recruited wherever and whenever he could. The former waitress who is the school’s science teacher for 7th, 8th and 10th grades is taking an alternative licensure program. The kindergarten teacher completed an alternative licensure program last year. She is so strapped financially by her hefty college student loans that she lives in a fifth-wheel trailer provided by her mother.

Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn lives in a camper outside Simla because she can’t afford housing on her teacher salary. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“If I have to live in a camper, I guess that’s what I have to do,” said Holly Koehn, the kindergarten teacher. “I love the kids, and they carry me through.”

Wilson hired a special-education teacher on an emergency basis through the state’s temporary educator authorization program. She has no special-education training or experience and still is learning how to craft individualized education programs for the nearly 40 special-needs students Wilson estimates are at the school.

A few years ago, when a math teacher quit in the middle of the year, Wilson could find only two potential candidates. When he reviewed the college transcript of one, Wilson discovered that candidate had flunked three of his math classes in college. The math teacher he eventually hired out of retirement didn’t work out. He was letting his students skip class to play basketball in the gym.

“We’re just Band-Aiding our situation,” Wilson said.

Wilson and other superintendents are pinning their hopes on getting some of the $3 million in state grants the legislature funded last year to help address teacher shortages. This week the Colorado Department of Education will start disbursing those grants to school districts to fight teacher turnover. More than $7.4 million in grant requests have been submitted by school districts.

Wilson hopes his application will secure $375,000 in state grants. If the state awards his district the money, he would use it over the next three years to pay teachers bonuses and stipends for housing assistance and to help them obtain master’s degrees. He also hopes to use some of the grant to pay for extra school supplies and mentoring.

“It’s sad that somebody who goes to college for four or five years and has a lot of college debt will come to Simla, and all we can give them is 33,000 bucks,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a teacher, a young teacher living in a fifth-wheel camper out on a field. I just think that is so sad.”

Several other school districts applying for the aid say they need money to provide housing for teachers. Others want to create new on-site daycare programs so teachers have easy access to childcare.

Figuring out how to “grow your own”

The Colorado Department of Higher Education also distributed about $2 million in grants in October to help colleges develop collaborative approaches with school districts to attract more aspiring teachers.

Western Colorado University in Gunnison received two of those grants worth a total of $200,350 to help the Summit School District develop a “grow-your-own” approach to addressing teacher shortages there.

Science teacher Lena Olsen works with Simla Junior High students at Big Sandy School on Feb. 25, 2019. Olsen, was working at the Purple Toad Social Tap and Grill in Falcon when she was recruited to teach. Now she’s working toward alternative licensure. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The starting salary for a teacher in Summit County, which includes the resort mountain town of Breckenridge, is $40,800, 36 percent below the annual cost of living in the area, a recent statewide salary survey showed.

The high cost of living in Summit County makes it hard to recruit teachers, especially when it comes to teaching the 25 percent of the district’s students who speak English as a second language, said Lana McLaughlin, the secondary education manager for the district. While 41 percent of the district’s students are minorities, only 8 percent of the teachers are, and fewer than 10 percent of the teachers are bilingual.

Western Colorado will use the state grant to offer full-tuition scholarships for four years to as many as four Summit School District graduates who want to become teachers. The state aid also will help paraprofessionals currently assisting in the classrooms earn a license to teach.

“Grow-your-own takes a while,” McLaughlin said. “The people who already live here have chosen to live here and know the struggles and have figured them out somehow. They’re here. We have to figure out that pathway to help them become a teacher.”

Lawmakers propose student-loan help, stipends

This year, legislators are pursuing other strategies to attract more teachers. State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada, wants the state to help pay off students loans for as many as 100 teachers annually who agree to teach in rural schools or in content areas with teacher shortages. Teachers who receive the loan-forgiveness money could receive as much as $5,000 a year for up to five years. Zenzinger’s Senate Bill 3 already has passed the Senate education committee.

State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, wants to bolster programs that offer state stipends to teachers who pursue alternative licensure or national certification while teaching in rural areas. Last year, the state capped at 100 the stipends that the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Rural Education could hand out to rural teachers seeking additional certification or alternative licensure. Todd’s Senate Bill 9, which has passed both the House and Senate, would remove that cap and increase the amount of the annual stipends for teachers in alternative licensure programs to as much as $6,000 a year from $2,800 annually.

While the stipend program and college loan forgiveness initiatives would provide some help, it won’t go a long way toward solving Colorado’s teacher shortage woes, predicted Douglas Bissonette, the superintendent of the Elizabeth School District, located in Elbert County.

“Imagine that you slid out on your motorcycle and scraped up your whole arm and had a bone protruding and all you got was a little Band-Aid,” Bissonette said. “It just doesn’t address the issues.”

Independent study of teacher pay and turnover

The nearly $3 million the state eventually would devote annually to college loan forgiveness and extra stipends for teachers would barely even solve the teacher shortage problem in Elizabeth, Bissonette said. Each year Elizabeth loses about 30 of the 130 teachers on its staff.

Such defections got Bissonette interested in studying teacher pay and teacher turnover rates in Colorado three years ago. Each year, he compiles a spreadsheet that has grown to include data on average teacher salaries statewide, teacher turnover rates, cost of living, property tax rates and starting teacher salaries.

The spreadsheet shows many rural areas are getting worse when it comes to teacher pay, and the stagnant salaries in rural areas contribute to high teacher turnover. Last year, teachers in districts ranked in the top 9 percent in salary made 84 percent more than those employed in districts ranked in the bottom 9 percent, his spreadsheet shows. In 2009, that salary gap was just 60 percent, according to the data.

All the school districts in that bottom 9 percent last year were in rural areas. Bissonette said many rural school districts don’t have the tax base to pass a mill levy override that will raise enough to pay teachers more, as wealthier districts do.

There were 109 districts ranked in the bottom 9 percent in salary last year. Those districts paid an average teacher salary of $39,592, which was, on average, 21 percent below the annual cost of living in those districts. In 25 districts the starting pay for a teacher was so low that it was more than 40 percent below the cost of living of the areas.

“The state’s school funding formula doesn’t account for problems the rural school districts face,” Bissonette said. “These aren’t just district-size issues. These are geographic issues related to property tax rates and what the tax base is in those districts.”

Living in rural areas isn’t always cheap

Housing can be scarce and expensive in rural areas like Simla, where kids from two counties are educated in the K-12 Big Sandy School. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The cost of living in rural areas of the state also often is much higher than people realize, Bissonette said.

For instance, a 2017 cost-of-living analysis by the nonpartisan Colorado Legislative Council, the research arm of the legislature, found that the rural Elizabeth School District has a slightly higher cost of living than the neighboring metro Douglas County School District. Often health care and transportation costs are higher in rural areas than metro districts, Bissonette said. And rural housing also often isn’t as cheap as people expect, he added.

Elizabeth, a tiny town surrounded by massive ranches owned by the wealthy, has high housing costs, but the school district could only afford to pay its teachers an average of $40,471 annually last year. Douglas County, which actually has a slightly lower cost of living, paid more, with an average teacher salary of $53,080.

When Bissonette surveyed teachers about why they were leaving his district, he learned the story of Terry Bonewell. During the 10 years that he worked as an Elizabeth High School social studies teacher and wrestling coach, Bonewell also held down a second job four days a week and lived with a roommate to make ends meet. He drove more than 250 miles a week to and from work because of a lack of affordable housing in Elizabeth.

He ended up leaving for a job at another school district that paid him 50 percent more, with better benefits and continuing-education opportunities.

In a December presentation on the rural teacher shortage to the Colorado Association of School Boards, Bissonette recounted losing the veteran teacher and spelled out the reasons so many feel they have to look elsewhere. He recalled Bonewell expressing his love for the students, parents and community of Elizabeth, but still feeling compelled to go.

“The realities of life forced my decision,” Bonewell told him.

Click here to see searchable database in fullscreen.

Rising Sun