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Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn reads to students at the Big Sandy School Monday, February 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cañon City Schools social worker Shantell Lynch considers herself lucky that 15 years after she earned her master’s degree, she has only $35,000 in student loans left to pay off. Some of her colleagues are carrying as much as $100,000 in education debt.

Still, it’s a heavy weight for Lynch, 51, who became an educator after a career in the prison system.

“Unless I win the lottery, I could see myself paying it until the day I die,” she said.

She’s hopeful she’ll be able to pay her debt off faster through a new educator loan forgiveness program operated by the Colorado Department of Higher Education could help — though competition to receive funding from the program is high.

More than 3,200 people applied for the program, which this year will pay off a total of $500,000 in student loans for 100 Colorado teachers, principals and other staff, CDHE Executive Director Angie Paccione said. Friday was the application deadline.

To qualify, teachers and principals must have graduated from an approved Colorado educator preparation program. Other staff must have gone through an accredited program of study in the area in which they’re endorsed.

Globes sit in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The loan forgiveness program, created last year by the state legislature, will pay off up to $5,000 per year for five years to those who are accepted, primarily educators working in rural school districts or those in positions that are difficult to fill. All applicants will learn by the end of April whether they’ve been accepted.

The Colorado Department of Education has laid out positions that rural districts are in dire need of this school year, including teachers in early childhood education, math, music, science, social studies and special education along with school counselors and nurses. In non-rural districts, the demand is particularly high for teachers in business and marketing, drama theater arts, early childhood education and special education, as well as for school nurses, physical therapists, psychologists and social workers, according to CDE.

A tool to attract and retain teachers, especially in rural Colorado

The program grew out of the need to address Colorado’s teacher shortage, which Paccione characterizes as one of the most severe in the country. Colorado was more than 7,700 teachers short from kindergarten through high school during the 2018-19 school year, Paccione said, citing a survey conducted by CDE. Rural areas face the most acute shortages.

Offering loan forgiveness to educators is a good return on the state’s investment, said Paccione, a former teacher who benefited from grant dollars while completing her schooling.

“We’ll commit to you if you commit to us,” she said.

Lawmakers started to look at Colorado’s teacher shortage more seriously in 2017, with a bill pushing a study to clarify how severe the state’s teacher shortage is, what factors are contributing to the problem and some recommendations about solutions to overcome it, said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Zenzinger, also a former teacher who said she knows firsthand the burden of student loans, tried to create the local-forgiveness program in 2018, then successfully pushed the proposal through last session.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. (Handout)

The 2017 study also looked at the national teacher shortage and the reasons behind it, which include that fewer students are opting to pursue a degree in an educator preparation program, deciding on other majors instead, and that teachers are exiting the field faster. While teachers used to burn out after an average of five years, they’re now burning out after an average of three years, Zenzinger said.

That’s why the state wants to set educators up with five years of loan forgiveness, Zenzinger said, so they can make it over the three-year hump, potentially start feeling like a part of the community and decide to stay.

Schools need quality teachers who will grow in their profession, Zenzinger said. “And we need them to stick around.”

She pointed to low pay and a lack of support for teachers as deterrents to attracting them to schools and keeping them there. Those struggles are particularly felt in rural districts, she acknowledged, as new teachers oftentimes contend with a high cost of living in those areas while saddled with significant student loan debt and an earning capacity that is not very high.

Just over half of resident undergraduates in Colorado leave college with debt and of those who have debt, the average total is $25,500, according to Paccione.

That figure influenced the financial structure of the program as those devising it tried to think of how they could drive teachers to teach in shortage areas, Zenzinger said.

“It’s going to mean that instead of your already low salary going toward your major student loan payment, you can put that toward the cost of living,” Zenzinger said.

Sixth-grade students work through a Spanish language exercise at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The loan forgiveness program, which was one idea cited in the 2017 study, will grant an additional $500,000 to another 100 teachers, principals and support staff each year. It is slated to sunset after 10 years, when lawmakers hope to have a better handle on the shortage, though Zenzinger said she would have liked to make the program a permanent one.

“I would have liked to scale it up bigger, but I had to be mindful of the implications to the budget,” Zenzinger said. “I don’t want to undermine our ability to fund schools because we made this program so big.”

A separate piece of legislation being considered this legislative session, Senate Bill 158, could expand the loan forgiveness program by opening it up to professionals who graduated from educator preparation programs outside Colorado and by doing away with the cap of 100 new recipients each year.

Valerie Sherman, rural education coordinator for the Colorado Center for Rural Education at the University of Northern Colorado, was astounded by the high level of program interest.

“I think it’s a huge step in the right direction,” Sherman said, adding that the program will motivate professionals “to go rural and stay rural.”

For education professionals like Lynch, who specializes in social work for elementary school students with special needs in Cañon City Schools, securing one of the 100 spots would be “a blessing.”

Downtown Canon City, looking west. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lynch lives in a two-income household and said that if she was on her own she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. Her children are grown, but she still lives paycheck to paycheck and in the past has had to ask for deferments or a reduction in payments on her loans.

The financial stress has made her wonder whether she should have gone into a different field or moved to a different city, but she said she’s committed to giving back to the hometown that has given her so much.

“Kids in small towns need an educator just like people in big cities do,” Lynch said. “We choose to support our hometown and if we can get assistance to stay here and help our youth, then it’s worth trying.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin