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Educating the Front of the Class

CSU-Pueblo teaching
Jeff Piquette / Photo by Jessica Warren

Just before students in Pueblo returned to school this year, reports said District 60 was facing a hiring crisis. Thirteen teaching positions remained open two weeks before classes started and Pueblo City Schools, like many school districts across the nation, was struggling to find qualified teachers to fill classrooms.

The district said it was making good progress filling positions in the final days leading up to school but that it was taking time to hire highly-qualified teachers in subjects that are becoming progressively more difficult to fill.

A little over a mile away from the district’s eastern boundary, another set of students was also about to return to a new school year. Quite a different group, and an increasingly rare one at that, these students were on their way to becoming teachers.

In just a few years, enrollment in the teacher education program at Colorado State University-Pueblo, like many universities across the nation, has decreased while teacher shortages in Colorado and across the nation have increased.

“I would say there has been a significant shift,” said Jeff Piquette, Interim Associate Dean of Teacher Education at CSU-Pueblo.

From 2013 to 2014, the program saw a 14 percent decrease in enrollment, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s 2015 Educator Preparation Report. Statewide, during the same time period, enrollment in teacher education programs decreased by 5 percent.

Teacher shortages are happening on a national basis, too, and in Colorado, rural schools are hurting the most. Colorado Public Radio reported in September that some rural schools didn’t receive any teaching applications last year.

Qualified teachers are in high demand right now across the state, especially in disciplines such as science, math, special education and foreign languages.

But for some, teaching isn’t an appealing profession anymore.

CSU-Pueblo teaching
Jeff Piquette teaches an education class at CSU-Pueblo.  Photo by Jessica Warren

Part of the shortage can be attributed to veteran teachers who have decided to leave the profession. Last year, for example, Senate Bill 191 took effect in Colorado classrooms and reshaped the way teachers are evaluated.

“Some of the anecdotal feedback that we get is that certainly the state legislature, like Senate Bill 191, which has increased the accountability for teachers, is playing into that (the shortage) to some degree,” Piquette said.

Under the bill, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on student performance, while the other half comes from professional practices.

“So, basically, if their students don’t perform with adequate yearly growth from one year to the next, they’re held pretty highly accountable for it,” Piquette said. “They disagree with that so much that they are leaving teaching and so, I’ve heard some people say that even their best, veteran teachers are leaving.”

Economic factors may also contribute to the teacher shortages, especially among young people deciding which career field to go into.

“You know, the starting pay for a teacher is pretty low and so when that’s also a factor in the decisions you have to make, you can go into business or go into science and get into industries where you make almost double or triple the starting salary,” he said. “For a lot of people, that’s all it takes.”

But for those who decide to go into teaching, Piquette said that teacher education students are in a unique position at CSU-Pueblo because of Pueblo’s proximity to different types of school districts. Students looking for teaching jobs, he said, have a lot of options.

“What’s nice is that in our region, we actually have all different kinds of environments available to students,” he said. “Not only are the Pueblo city and county schools hurting, rural schools are hurting probably even more.”

At CSU-Pueblo, the job placement rate for students who graduate from the teacher education program is 76 percent.

“So, for all the people who finished our program and sought a teaching job, 76 percent found one,” Piquette said. This number, he said, doesn’t account for students who went on to graduate programs or other career fields upon completing the program.

This year, enrollment in the program increased slightly, by 4 percent, and some initiatives are working to combat regional teacher shortages.

In October, for example, the department received a grant from the CDHE that will help CSU-Pueblo with recruiting and retaining teachers in rural school districts. “We will be using those funds to build the pipeline of teachers to rural school districts over the next year or so,” Piquette said in an email.

The education department’s alternate licensure program has also grown significantly this year. The two-year program, called Teacher in Residency, prepares people with degrees outside of education to teach in Colorado–after they’ve been hired as teachers.

“We have one of the largest alternate licensure programs that we’ve had in a long time,” Piquette said. “Because of the teacher shortage, the schools are really desperate to put anyone who has the needed qualifications in there and so we’ve got a variety of different content area placements who started this fall in that program.”

The program works by taking applicants with knowledge in certain disciplines and, essentially, teaches them how to teach.

“So, basically people who have a bachelor’s degree and the right content knowledge in a particular area can apply to the state of Colorado to be eligible to be hired by the schools and once they’re hired, they can come to us to get their requirements in,” Piquette said.

Around a dozen additional students have shown interest in starting the program next spring, he said.

For the CSU-Pueblo students who are pursuing their degree in teacher education, part of their experience may become more intensive. This year, the department hired a new field experience coordinator and is looking into increasing the frequency of CSU-Pueblo student visits at local schools.

“One of the things that has garnered quite a bit of interest among the schools, especially the Pueblo City Schools group, is to have a more frequent and maybe intense experience with these teachers,” Piquette said.

In the past, the program emphasized having a variety of experiences in different classrooms so the future teachers were prepared for any type of class.

“But what some of the principals are interested in is trying to get somebody who might come and be part of their school for a majority of their experience so that they really get ingrained into that system and they sort of have the ability to mentor them,” Piquette said.

“When they’re done, they would be a really easy person to hire and hit the ground running even more so.”

The field experience coordinator has plans to meet with a few District 60 principals and if all goes according to plan, the program could be implemented on a small scale next fall.

The teacher education department has also been working with local schools to generate an interest in teaching among their students. The Teacher Cadet Program, available to Pueblo high school students, offers concurrent enrollment at CSU-Pueblo.

“They can actually get credit for courses that they’d have to take here,” Piquette said.

The department is also working, in some ways, to combat disparities in certain content areas with teachers who already have credentials. Some of the most needed and rare teachers across the country are those with experience with English Language Learners or English as a Second Language.

“And we have actually a grant program going on right here at CSU-Pueblo called the MERIT grant and it basically pays the tuition for anybody that wants to come back and add that as an endorsement,” Piquette said. The program can also be tied to a master’s degree at the school, with four additional courses.

Today, about three months into school, District 60 still has teaching vacancies but Pueblo City Schools Communications Director Dalton Sprouse attributes them to “natural reasons any school district would have vacancies,” like illnesses or early retirements.

“They’re there because of natural attrition,” he said.

At the beginning of the school year, some vacancies were filled with retired teachers. In Colorado, retired teachers can work on “110s” or “140s,” which are the number of days they can teach during a calendar year without affecting their retirement status, according to Paula Chostner, executive director of human resources in District 60.

School districts can use an unlimited amount of teachers on 110s, but only ten 140s. District 60 met its quota for the retired teachers who can work 140s, Chostner said.

As school districts across the U.S. struggle to hire qualified teachers, it is becoming common practice to fill positions with retired teachers or substitutes. Chostner said school districts often use retired teachers to fill positions in areas such as special education.

“Here at CSU-Pueblo, we are very much aware of the shortage in the region and we are very open to any kinds of collaborations that come our way to try and help solve the problem,” Piquette said.

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