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High hopes, new help for rural school teachers

 by Kent Brick

In August, schools open their doors to welcome returning students. And a new law intended to help schools hire teachers takes effect this month. The law is specifically meant to help rural and isolated schools, which continue to play a vital role in the quality of life in rural North Dakota.

Student loan repayment assistance

Kirsten Baesler, N.D. superintendent of Public Instruction Rebecca Pitkin, executive director, N.D. Education Standards and Practices Board
Kirsten Baesler, N.D. superintendent of public instruction
Rebecca Pitkin, executive director, N.D. Education Standards and Practices Board

A teacher shortage was addressed recently by the North Dakota Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force. Its purpose was to make recommendations to the state superintendent of public instruction and members of the N.D. Education Standards and Practices Board (ESPB) about how to recruit and retain principals and teachers for North Dakota public schools.

“We were seeing a number of teaching positions that were going unfilled, at the beginning of each school year, across the state,” says Kirsten Baesler, N.D. superintendent of public instruction. Compounding this problem, Baesler says, is that the teaching profession has recently been attracting fewer people, and current teacher graduates are inclined toward other professions instead of rural teaching.

This was indicated in a report provided to the Task Force, prepared by Bismarck State College President Dr. Larry Skogen. The report said state institutions graduate enough teachers, but not all of them go into teaching immediately.

“The report indicated that if teachers were not able to get a job in one of our largest 20 school districts, they were choosing not to utilize their teaching degree,” Baesler says. She says these teachers chose to remain in a larger community, enter a different profession, or provide substitute teaching service, while awaiting a teaching position vacancy.

“We wanted to have some compelling reason to get people to try teaching in a rural, isolated school,” Baesler says, regarding the Task Force.

“We felt that once we got them out there, they would see the joys and the value of teaching in a rural town.”

Baesler says the recurring answer new teaching graduates gave when asked what it would take to get them to go to rural schools was help with student loan payback.

So, the Task Force made this approach a high priority, aiming its efforts at teacher student loan assistance legislation to be taken up by the 2017 Legislature. The result was the passage of Senate Bill 2037. The thrust of the bill is that teachers who teach in geographical areas, and in grade levels and content areas that have a declared teacher shortage, will be eligible for student loan forgiveness.

The new law, which became effective Aug. 1, rolls out with a period of administrative rule making by the State Board of Higher Education. The law designates the superintendent of public instruction for prioritizing student loan debt relief applications, based on the number of unfilled school vacancies, critical need, and geographic location.

Another key recommendation from the Task Force called for a marketing campaign promoting the teaching profession. Advocating the rewards – beyond dollars – of teaching comes naturally for Baesler, and for Rebecca Pitkin, ESPB executive director.

Pitkin says her conversations with high schoolers reveal their passion for service.

“We have a crop of 17- and 18-year-olds who care deeply about others,” Pitkin says. “I think this generation coming up is used to service learning - they volunteer, they participate in many things.”

Pitkin says discussing teaching with this generation requires an approach focusing on this passion. “Instead of asking the question ‘Do you want to be a teacher?’ the question really is ‘Do you want to make a difference in the lives of others?’ I think many of our high schoolers can answer ‘yes’ to that question,” Pitkin says.

In addition, Pitkin says ESPB, which has responsibility for administering the state’s teacher licensing program, has licensing acquisition programs for adults from other professions who may be available and interested in joining school faculties.


Rugby, Wolford schools

Rural school superintendent Larry Zavada of Wolford

Rural school superintendent Larry Zavada, Wolford, N.D.

Rugby and Wolford public schools provide examples of the efforts undertaken to keep small – and really small – schools serving local residents.

Dr. Michael McNeff, superintendent of Rugby Public School, says recruiting and keeping teachers is indeed a challenge.

“Location matters to people,” McNeff says, adding that the lure of the state’s larger communities has produced a reduction in applicants he sees for teacher vacancies. His concern is always with placing qualified, high-quality people in teaching positions, and this gets harder to do with decreasing applicant numbers.

“But, I do feel, in the past few years, we have been able to find quality people,” he says.

McNeff, a Nevada native, attended Valley City State University, and after graduation, embarked on a teaching career in several North Dakota communities. He completed the doctoral program in educational administration from the University of North Dakota.

The Rugby school currently serves about 560 students, operating grades K-12, and a preschool.

Among the qualities in a teacher McNeff values is “a willingness to grow. … We’ve got to put some things in place that allow them to grow and create an atmosphere or culture that allows for that, and allows them the autonomy to make choices to further their professional learning,” McNeff says. He adds that the Rugby school will likely get new teachers with less experience than what a larger school system gets, so he looks for growth eagerness in applicants.

For Larry Zavada, an expectation that taking a teaching post at Wolford Public School would be a one-year stop, ripened into what is now a 34-year career there. Zavada, a Minot State University graduate, is the Wolford school superintendent.

Even with his small faculty and staff, Zavada also places emphasis on particular desired qualities. 

 “I'm not just looking for a body to fill the classroom position,” Zavada says. “There have been times when I could have hired in May and did not fill a position ’til August. I waited it out to find that right person that wanted to come to a small rural school. They need to be very committed to the education profession and have a willingness to wear several hats.”

 Zavada says he feels fortunate his relatively small faculty – nine people with teaching responsibilities, three of which are part time – is well-credentialed. Four of them have a master’s degrees. He adds that this group is driven by constant communication, with individual teachers empowered to employ approaches which will keep students interested in learning.

 Zavada says the Wolford school features a student support period, as the eighth and final period of each school day. Students use this period for things like teacher assistance, music lessons, technology tools work, or to take early release for work or team sports participation.

 Distance learning, through telecommunications, has become integral to the education offerings at Wolford.

 “Distance learning has a huge impact on class offerings for Wolford students,” Zavada says. “Our students have over 100 classes available through the North Dakota Center for Distance Education, and over 30 ag classes through the Nelson Academy for Agricultural Sciences in Scobey, Mont.”