|Custer County receives a lot of press, it seems, and last week was no exception. Last Friday’s “Denver Post” featured a page one story on the teacher shortage crisis in Colorado, accompanied by a photo of Custer County Elementary School teacher Sydney Camper gathered with her second grade class.
The article, compiled by “Post” staff writer Monte Whaley, summarizes the issue succinctly: “The state’s teacher shortage, which mirrors a national trend, grows larger each year. As many as 3,000 new teachers are needed to fill existing slots in Colorado classrooms while the number of graduates from teacher-preparation programs in the state has declined by 24.4 percent over the past five years. Meanwhile, enrollment in the state’s teacher preparation programs in 2015-16 remained flat from the previous academic year with 9,896 students.
“On top of that, at least a third of the teachers in Colorado are 55 or older, and closing in on retirement. Plenty of factors — low salaries, a culture obsessed with student testing, the social isolation that comes with teaching in small towns — send students scrambling from teaching careers, say experts.”
Custer County schools were among the rural examples of the teacher supply plight. Superintendent Mark Payler is quoted in the “Post” article as saying, “This is as pure a crisis as we have in this state…There is no pool of teachers anymore, the candidates for jobs just aren’t there.”
In a more expansive statement to the Tribune, Payler notes “While the teacher shortage is a crisis in Colorado we are doing what we can to continue to promote all that is great in Custer County schools. From small classroom sizes to offering a variety of Advanced Placement learning opportunities, we continue to offer our students an abundance of courses in areas, such as the arts and vocational classes, that many Front Range schools have reduced or cut back as we all face the same statewide funding challenges. As a district, we have looked at the challenges that lay ahead, and rather than be reactive, we are being proactive in our choices, which include providing fair-cost housing for our teachers as both a recruiting and retention ‘tool’ for our teaching staff.”
Actually, Custer County’s housing programming was lauded in the “Post” article as a forward thinking plan to address the endemic issue of rural retention of young and talented teachers.
Camper, who will begin her second year of teaching in Custer County next fall, is to be the first resident of the newly renovated preschool building on Jerry Drive, Westcliffe that will eventually provide four one-bedroom apartments for district teachers. She says of her experience, and anticipation of her next year, “I came here from a small town teaching post—Kremmling—and I had left because of housing being so expensive. I lived with my Mom and Dad here for 5-6 months before finding my own apartment, but now this July 1 move provides me stable and affordable housing. The apartment is very nice, and I am so excited.” Camper added, “I’ve had a good first year; I’m happy and supported here…the kids and the parents are terrific. I‘m so looking forward to next year!”
While not a solution to recruitment and retention, it is clear that affordable housing is certainly part of an environment that can attract and keep teachers in our rural district.
Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango Democrat and former teacher, has introduced House Bill 1176, which, according to the “Post” article, “would allow rural school districts to hire an unlimited number of retired teachers who would be able to collect their entire pensions while working. The bill would ease current restrictions on retired teachers who re-enter the classroom and who must forfeit a portion of their pension if they work more than 110 days. In some cases, the restrictions begin at 140 days.”
McLachlan herself said to Whaley, “We know the teacher shortage in Colorado has reached a crisis mode, so this bill creates the framework to do something about it and bring more teachers to our classrooms…Many are afraid the solution is money, so they don’t want to address it,” she said. “The problem might also be at the college level: We’re not graduating enough teachers to fit the needs of our schools.”
While the state crisis continues to evolve, Custer County gains a growing reputation for at least attempting to stay ahead of the crisis wave. Continual planning and creative discussions take place within the Board of Education, the School Accountability Committee, Excellence in Education, school administrators and faculty, and committed community members. The local consensus seems to be that our high caliber schools will be maintained with the best interests of students at heart.
– W.A. Ewing