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No ‘magic bullet’ for solving Colorado’s teacher shortage, education officials say

Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - August 24, 2017 - Updated: August 24, 2017

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Third graders listen as their teacher, Cathleen Irons, reads them a book during the first day of school at Centennial Elementary School Tuesday, August 12, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

DENVER – Solving Colorado’s teacher shortage isn’t likely to be fixed by government alone, state education officials said Wednesday.

“I don’t think you can legislate value and professionalism,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “But I think it matters when the highest appointed leaders say, ‘Teachers matter. Let’s rally as a community to support our teachers.'”

In the same philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child, it’s going to take a group effort involving schools, businesses, nonprofits, colleges, lawmakers and communities to address the dwindling number of students entering teacher preparation programs, completing them and staying in the field, preliminary findings from a study show.

“The more we can have community ownership,” the better, Hunter said. “It’s important that this is not just educators talking to educators about education.”

She and Colorado Department of Education Commissioner Katy Anthes discussed on Wednesday results from town halls being held statewide.

The meetings emerged from new legislation requiring state education agencies to develop a strategic action plan for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. A report is due to legislators by Dec. 1.

“We all know that teachers prepare the future of all other professions, so we know how critical they are,” Anthes said.

Thirteen town halls are planned; 10 have been held in the past two months, including one in Colorado Springs.

Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs since 2010 and a 24 percent drop in students completing such programs.

Anthes said three glaring problems are surfacing:

– the perception of teaching needs an attitude adjustment

– low salaries, along with a lack of mentoring and support in the job

– the complicated process to become a teacher

“Teaching is harder than rocket science – it’s incredibly complex,” she said.

Yet, people do not hold teaching in high esteem as a profession, she said, with many viewing it as a thankless job.

Also thrown into the pot have been discussions about the stress teachers face, from strict accountability measures and students’ needs beyond learning, such as those that accompany living in poverty.

Colorado’s 178 school districts have “local control,” which allows them to set their own salary and benefits packages. The idea of instituting a statewide base teacher pay has been raised, Reed said, to avoid the “cherry picking of urban vs. rural,” and “border states that perhaps pay more.”

“Growing their own,” meaning cultivating teachers among a community’s own residents is another concept people think would work to increase the ranks.

Loan forgiveness on education debts, scholarships for education, assistance with low-cost housing and more student teaching internships and mentorships are other possibilities to generate interest.

Creativity apparently is being born out of necessity. One school district is talking about working with local contractors to offer tiny homes for teacher housing, Anthes said. Another rural district with three pregnant teachers is working with the community to provide an infant and toddler care center within the school, she said, as a retention tool.

A few districts have taken advantage of a new law that easily allows retired teachers to return to the classroom, as well as an option that enables a person to be hired by demonstrating content knowledge with a bachelor’s degree and enter alternative licensure status for one year.

“There’s no magic bullet policy,” Anthes said. “We’re going to have to present a plan with some policy recommendations, some the Colorado Department of Education can help with, and some local districts can provide tools, support and technical assistance.”

Erin Prater

Erin Prater is a producer for Colorado Politics. She is a multimedia journalist with 15 years of experience writing, editing and designing for newspapers, magazines, websites, publishing houses and businesses. Her previous positions include military reporter at The Gazette, general assignment reporter at The Huerfano County World, copy editor at David C. Cook publishing house and adjunct mass communication instructor at Pueblo Community College. Her bylines include The New York Times Upfront, The Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.), Military Spouse magazine and Omaha Magazine (Omaha, Neb.). Her syndicated bylines include The Denver Post, MSNBC.com, Military.com and wire services.


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