Tackling the rural teacher shortage in Colorado and beyond

As a new school year approaches, Brittni Laura Hernandez cannot wait to get into the classroom. Born and raised in Greeley in northeast Colorado, it has always been her end game to teach in her home community.

“It’s where I grew up, and it really shaped who I am,” she said.

Hernandez says her hometown is often billed as a small town, but it is home to about 100,000 people and is a combination of  white and Latinx communities. She lights up when she talks about her family’s deep roots within the community. Growing up, though, she admits her family encouraged her to attend “good” schools, which often translated to schools with largely white, middle-class students. Hernandez (EthnSt’13, MEdu’18) and others dream of changing the disparities between schools.

When she came to CU Boulder as an undergraduate in 2008, Hernandez became increasingly connected with her identity and upbringing. A former student government president, she was active in multiple extracurriculars and explored issues of race and social justice in her courses. It was then that she realized teaching was a way she could address issues of injustice.

“CU Boulder was fundamental in my identity formation in a complex way; it’s where I started to come to terms with being brown and working class,” she said.

Brittni Laura Hernandez

Brittni Laura Hernandez in her classroom.

I always knew I wanted to be in education. My mentors said, ‘You’re brown, you’re smart and you want to help your people? Then go into education.’

Where have all the teachers gone?

Research shows that when educators like Hernandez teach in their home communities, they are more likely to stay in the profession and connect with students. That’s important as Colorado and many other states face teacher shortages, partly because of difficulty recruiting and retaining educators.

Shortages are not created equal, and the educator population has a long way to go to become as diverse as student populations. Areas in STEM, special education, world languages and culturally responsive teaching are often more likely to be understaffed, and teacher shortages in rural areas far outpace urban and suburban shortages. In 2017, the Colorado Department of Education reported an estimated 3,000-teacher shortfall predominantly in rural areas.  

As a result, the School of Education is  focusing its efforts on attracting new teachers and supporting current teachers as professionals by partnering with schools and organizations dedicated to the same goals.

A ‘crisis point’ for rural schools

While teacher shortages are not new to rural schools, the deficit is widening in an alarming way, said Michelle Murphy, executive director at the Colorado Rural School Alliance, an advocacy group of rural superintendents and board members.

“Rural schools used to be able to hire applicants from the pool of candidates that did not receive positions in larger urban and suburban schools, but now, there is not the same overflow of applicants,” she said. “The teacher shortage has hit a crisis point for most of our rural schools. This is important because our rural students deserve the same access to qualified teachers as their urban and suburban counterparts.”

In Colorado, 74 percent of the 196 school districts are considered rural, and yet, only 9 percent of the state’s funds are distributed to rural districts, according to a report from the Colorado Departments of Higher Education and Education.

Murphy, a self-described “city girl” who grew up in New York, fell in love with rural schools, and she believes others will, too.

“Many rural schools are implementing innovative programing through online or blended learning opportunities, but you can’t replace or overstate the importance of having a teacher in the classroom to connect with and guide the students locally,” she said.

“The partnerships with higher education institutions around this issue are a welcome and exciting opportunity to address local concerns.”

Locally grown teachers

The School of Education is joining with partners like the Rural School Alliance, other colleges and schools of education, the Colorado Departments of Education and Higher Education, and the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to address teacher shortages.

The school received a seed grant from the Colorado Department of Higher Education to enhance a partnership with the Northeast BOCES and launch a pilot project aimed at teacher recruitment and retention in the area’s 12 far-flung districts. Among many approaches, the project includes creating lab classrooms and a summer institute to support local master teachers as well as an “immersion weekend” for teacher education students from CU Boulder and other Colorado universities to spend time observing classrooms, meeting teachers and attending an athletic event.

The project is also laying the foundation for a Future Teachers of America club and potential online coursework and pathways. Next steps may include extending a successful “grow your own” program.

“Grow your own” programs are becoming increasingly popular as a means for recruiting teachers. The programs introduce students as young as middle school to the education field and offer concurrent enrollment courses.

The budding partnership has been rewarding and warmly received by local superintendents and Bret Miles, executive director of the NE BOCES, said Dean Kathy Schultz. If successful, the multifaceted project could be replicated in other areas of the state.

“We are excited to support ‘grow your own’ programs because of our commitment to support local residents to stay in their communities to teach,” Schultz said. “These young people know the most about the youth in their own communities and are able to make longer-term commitments to teaching and staying in the classroom.”

The root of the matter

Grow your own programs show promise, but education leaders are quick to point out the complexity of needs to better support students and educators that are fundamental to any sort of “fix.”

The world was watching as thousands of teachers from Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia and, of course, Colorado donned red T-shirts and put pen to poster board to demonstrate as part of the teacher walkouts at their state capitol buildings. Educators called out concerns of low wages, rising health care costs, pension plans, poor classroom conditions and more. Education policy experts were watching, too, and most were not surprised.

“In some ways, it’s a miracle teachers didn’t rebel sooner,” said Terrenda White, assistant professor.

The past 20 years has seen stringent implementation of local, state and federal policies that have aimed to improve schools by evaluating teachers and holding them accountable for low student performance or by closing schools and creating new schools managed by private groups and based on choice and competition, she said. This environment of high-stakes testing and evaluations has unfolded amid deep and growing inequities in school funding and resources, and stagnant salaries yet rising costs for education and licensure.

“All the warning signs have been glaring at us for quite a while,” White said. “It’s wrong to keep demanding more of our teachers while giving them less; the same goes for our students. They both need greater resources to meet the new sets of demands and higher standards we’ve set for them.”

Elizabeth Meyer, associate dean of students, said that capturing state and national attention is a first step, but the proof of progress will be in whether funding and policies evolve to meet the needs of schools, students and teachers.

“It’s hard to know how much impact the walkouts will have on voters and legislators,” Meyer said. “We need to see the legislature bring something forward that will allow us to change the way we fund schools and support teachers, because districts can only do so much.

“As a democratic society, we need to invest in public education or we will continue to have high turnover for teachers and poor conditions for our students.”

In it for the long haul

At the School of Education’s graduation ceremony, applause erupted when Dean Schultz mentioned the teacher walkouts, the social movements that came before and her renewed hope for the future.

“The walkouts remind us to acknowledge and support teachers’ dignity, to build changes with them and based on their strengths, and to remember the incredible asset each teacher is to our society,” she said. “When teachers walk out of their schools it is because they care deeply about children and their education, and they want to be acknowledged for this care and their incredibly hard work.”

Hernandez was one of the new teachers at graduation. She is also excited about the momentum within the teacher walkout movement and the start of the school year. She hopes her first year back in a Greeley classroom will be followed by many more new beginnings for her career and for education. Schultz finds hope every time new, passionate graduates like Hernandez enter the field.

“These graduates devote their lives to educating young people, and they have made a commitment to schools and to the future,” she said. “It is our responsibility to support them to stay in the classroom over the long haul.”

Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong.