Colorado schools coping with major teacher shortage

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DENVER -- From Durango to Denver, Limon to Loveland, Colorado schools are facing an unprecedented teacher shortage.

The problem is at its worst in rural districts, especially on the eastern Plains. In the Genoa-Hugo School District, open positions have gone unfilled.

“We lost a business teacher a year ago and received zero applicants,” Superintendent Frank Reeves said.

That forced the district to cut its business program. Instead, the school’s English and agriculture teachers are now teaching business classes. The problem is multipronged.

Fewer students are becoming teachers. Enrollment in the state’s teacher prep schools is down 23 percent from five years ago. That’s affecting all school districts statewide.

However, the problem is worse in rural communities, where the average teacher salary is about $14,000 less than the state average.

“The highest average salary statewide is $65,000 in Boulder Valley, so when you consider $65,000 vs. $34,000, most people aren’t going to stay out here,” said Don Anderson, director of the East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides services to several local member districts like Genoa-Hugo.

The other challenge facing districts such as Hugo is location. Rural can mean isolation. There isn’t much to entice young, new teachers to stay.

“For young, single teachers to come here, it can be tough. It can be lonely in the evenings,” said Marguerite Yowell, Genoa-Hugo’s only high school science teacher.

Unlike most teachers, Yowell moved to Hugo from Fort Collins 27 years ago and never left after she met a local rancher and got married. She now mentors new young teachers struggling to adjust to life on the Plains, but admits it can be a tough sell.

“I think you really do have to love the rural community and teaching in a small school,” she said.

Districts such as Genoa-Hugo are getting creative so they can offer programs despite a lack of teachers. Many offer classes through video conferencing. At Genoa-Hugo, a foreign language class is taught by a teacher who lives in New York.

The lesson is also streamed to other schools in the area. However, there is a solution in the works to try to lure more teachers to rural schools.

State lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee will hear a bill Wednesday that proposes tuition waivers and financial incentives to student teachers who agree to work in rural districts.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, would also fund rural school recruiters at Colorado colleges.

“That bill would help tremendously,” Reeves said. “Once they’re here, I think we can keep them."

It might not be the end-all, be-all solution, but it’s an attempt to do something, as towns such as Hugo fight to get new teachers and to keep the ones they have from leaving.