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Rural schools lead Minnesota teacher shortage — Red Wing included

Senate Education Finance Chairwoman Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, supports a bill that would restructure the teacher licensure system to broaden the scope of licenses educators in Minnesota can obtain. (Forum News Service photo by Maureen McMullen)

ST. PAUL—When Lee Carlson entered his career in public education nearly 30 years ago, aspiring teachers could expect to compete with hundreds of other applicants hoping to work in a Minnesota classroom.

Carlson described a "gauntlet" of applications and interviews before landing a job in St. James, a small town about 40 miles southwest of Mankato, where he still teaches high school English.

This year, the community's 1,000-student school district offered its newest teacher a job months in advance of the September start date.

"In the past, schools kind of waited until the academic year was done, then they'd go about trying to find people to fill the positions," Carlson said. "Now, you need to be out as far in front of that as you can, because if you don't get to them soon enough, someone else will."

The school's urgency to recruit new faculty reflects a growing shortage of teachers throughout the state.

The 2017 Teacher Supply and Demand report released by the Minnesota Department of Education this month found that more than 6,500 teachers throughout the state left their jobs during the 2014-2015 academic year. That is a 46 percent increase since 2008.

On average, about one-quarter of teachers leave their jobs after three years, and 15.1 percent leave after one year.

The most common reason teachers cited for leaving their jobs were personal reasons, which accounted for about 25 percent, followed by retirement at 22 percent.

Although the percentage of teacher retirements has dipped slightly in the past decade, the total number has grown.

Red Wing shortage

Red Wing School Board Chair Janie Farrar said the district's numbers are echoing these trends.

"Red Wing schools, too, are experiencing the effects of teacher shortages throughout the state of Minnesota, especially in areas such as math, science, special education, and career-technical fields that are difficult to find specific licensure in," Farrar said.

The shortage is especially palpable in rural areas, where baby boomers — people approaching retirement age — comprise a larger portion of the population.

A study from the State Demographic Center found that people older than 50 account for about 44 percent of rural Minnesotans and 41 percent of people who live in towns with fewer than 10,000 people, compared to 32 percent in urban areas.

Rural areas also have experienced an overall decline in population.

In entirely rural counties, deaths have outnumbered births since 2000. Rural counties, counties with small towns and counties with urban/rural mixes all experienced migration out of the area between 2010 and 2015.

"The message can sometimes be in smaller towns to get your education and get the heck out of here and that your goal should be somewhere big," Carlson said. "That creates a drain in the smaller communities."

Fred Nolan, executive director with the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said the shrinking and aging populations create a "double effect" for rural school districts looking to replace retirees.

"The student population is declining, the whole age of the community and county gets older, so a young teacher is more out of place," he said. "They just don't feel as accepted as if they were in a metro area."

Rural schools struggle the most to fill positions for special education, math and science teachers. Collin Nienhaus, a recent Minnesota State University Moorhead grad, will start teaching high school science in St. James in September.

He grew up in the area and said he enjoys the opportunities for outdoor recreation and familiarity the small class sizes offer. However, he can see why other teachers his age might not share his preference.

"I think there would be more challenges if you weren't from that general area," he said. "If you grew up in Minneapolis or St. Paul and went out to a small town to teach, I feel like it would be somewhat of a culture shock."

Higher pay also can steer new teachers away from rural areas and into bigger cities.

Residents in non-urban counties who work full time are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to live in poverty. Median incomes in urban areas top all other geography types by about $10,000, a trend which generally applies to teachers.

Although cost of living usually is lower outside of bigger cities, Assistant State Demographer Andi Egbert said the disparity raised concern in her department.

"Your take-home pay is your starting point for how you make decisions about how you plan for the future, and non-urban Minnesotans are at a disadvantage," she said. "They simply don't have as much take-home pay for the same amount of effort."

To help offset some of the financial struggles teachers in rural may face, Nolan said the rural education association will push for legislation to increase loan forgiveness in areas of service shortage.

The group also supports legislation to simplify the state's teacher licensure process.

A bill working its way through the Senate calls for a restructuring of the licensure process, which would create a tiered licensing system to expand the types of licensing teachers could receive.

For example, professionals in trades like welding and construction could obtain instructor licenses to teach their skills in schools.

Senate E-12 Finance Chair Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said the new system would streamline what she called a "broken" process.

"Our current system has too many very narrow-focused areas, and then they only cover a very narrow band of grade levels," she said. "We want to keep our highly-qualified teachers, we want to make it less onerous for qualified teachers from other states who transfer to get licensure in Minnesota, and encourage more people to enter the teaching field."

Farrar agrees.

"Rural and small town areas must continue to strive to be vibrant places to live and work," she said. "I know Red Wing is a great place to call home, and we need to continue to highlight our great community."

Key findings

Other key findings from the 2017 Teacher Supply and Demand report include:

• Although the number of teachers leaving their positions has increased by 46 percent since 2008, the total number of teachers has grown. In the last six years, the number of full-time teachers in the state has increased by 5.8 percent, while student enrollment grew 3.8 percent.

• While the total number of white students is shrinking, the number of students of color throughout the state is growing. There were more than 4,000 fewer white students in 2016 than in 2015. During that time, the state's enrollment gained 748 Native American students, 1,941 Asian/Pacific Islander students, 3,000 Hispanic students and more than 5,000 African American Students.

• District and charter school survey results indicate that there is access to effective teachers that reflect the student population for white students, but not for Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan Native, or Hispanic student populations.

• The percentage of newly licensed white teachers has decreased in the last three years, while the percentage of newly licensed black teachers has increased slightly. Teachers of color make up 4.23 percent of Minnesota teachers and 7.7 percent of new teachers licensed in the 2015-2016 school year.

Republican Eagle reporter Samantha Bengs contributed to this story.

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