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Persuading Teachers to Go Rural

District administrators craft incentives to attract and retain teachers.
Little Diomede Island, where some students in the BSSD live, is located in the Bering Strait, near Russia.

With a national teacher shortage projected to start peaking this year as baby boomers retire and budget shortfalls restrict state and local funding for teachers, rural school districts are working to keep the teachers they have while seeking new ones at little if any additional cost.

More than 100,000 veteran teachers could leave their jobs in the 2010-2011 school year, according to a report, "Learning Teams: Creating What's Next," prepared in 2008 by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. More than half the nation's teachers—1.7 million—are baby boomers and could be gone in less than a decade, the report says. Meanwhile, schools face the possible reality of eliminating an unprecedented number of teaching jobs for the same school year, according to a survey of superintendents released in May by the American Association of School Administrators.

The retirements alone will compound problems rural districts already face. Rural and small-town districts are "uniquely challenged" by shrinking tax bases and difficulty in recruiting and, even more so, retaining great teachers, especially in shortage areas like STEM as well as special education and English as a second language, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated in February at the American Association of School Administrators' National Conference on Education.

The obstacles for rural districts are greatest in the 900 high-poverty rural districts identified in 17 mostly southern and western states across the country, from North Carolina and West Virginia to Arizona and California, says Marty Strange, policy program director at the Rural School and Community Trust.

Of the roughly 1.4 million students that those 900 districts serve, 37 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged and 59 percent are students of color, according to the report, "Why Rural Matters," that the Trust released in November. The study concludes that rural students in states with more rural poverty and socio-economic diversity have lower scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams and state tests. "It's like a third-world country in some of these places," Strange says. "They are tough places to teach."

New teachers in the Bering Strait (Alaska) School District (BSSD) arrive in Unalakleet for an inservice which will help them adjust to teaching in Bush Alaska.

And according to a story in the New York Times, some state lawmakers in rural areas are concerned about President Obama's plan to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law, saying that it fails to consider rural problems. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), complained that federal rules on teacher credentials had driven thousands of experienced educators out of rural schools, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), worried about how school turnaround strategies based on firing ineffective instructors would work in a remote village on the Bering Sea that already had high teacher turnover.

In addition to offering lower salaries, rural districts are in small, remote communities with limited housing and amenities such as shopping and entertainment, which are particularly important for younger teachers, experts say.

Rural districts also provide little opportunity for professional development and advancement. More than a fifth of the nation's poorest-performing high schools, the so-called dropout factories, are in rural areas, Duncan said.

But the Obama administration is proposing education funding to "ensure a level playing field" for rural districts, he said. For example, in programs like i3, the "Invest in Innovation" program, "we will create a competitive priority for rural LEAs and innovations that target the unique needs of rural students," Duncan declared.

Salaries and Benefits

Salaries are a major issue in most rural districts, which don't have the resources to pay teachers what larger, urban districts would. "The first time there's an opening in a larger district down the road that pays a few thousand dollars more, they're gone," says John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

But some rural districts have found ways to compensate for that. In the Otto-Eldred (Pa.) School District, with 650 K12 students in a district population of about 3,000, teachers who stay 25 years get health insurance coverage for life. "If they start with us and stay with us, they'll end up with something the rest of the country is drooling over—health care after retirement," says Superintendent Robert Falk.

The Plymouth (Ind.) School Corporation, with 3,500 students, gives all teachers an annuity of 1 percent of their salary and an additional 1.5 percent annually in a plan for medical expenses after they retire. "When we spell out to them what their salary will be, we make sure they understand they are going to get that and what it's going to mean to them when they retire," says Plymouth Superintendent Dan Tyree.

In the Bering Strait (Alaska) School District, with 1,650 K12 students in 15 isolated villages accessible only by small bush aircraft, a "Service Recognition Plan" awards teachers $1,000 a year above their salaries if they stay for three years. Then they can either leave with the $3,000 or stay and continue to collect the bonus. If they stay five years, the money they have earned is increased retroactively to $1,500 per year and they can either take the $7,500 and leave or stay and collect more. If they stay seven years, they are credited with $2,000 per year and get a $14,000 check. If they continue to stay, the plan starts again at the beginning with $1,000 annually. The plan reaches its first seven-year level this spring.

Bering Strait Superintendent Jim Hickerson hopes it will help limit the district's annual teacher turnover rate to no more than 20 percent. That would be an "incredible" achievement in Alaska, where most districts are rural and yearly teacher turnover rates higher than 40 percent are not uncommon, he says.

Suing for Equal Compensation

Rural districts in some states have gone to court to try to obtain funding for teacher salaries equal to those in larger districts. In South Carolina, a ruling is awaited from the state Supreme Court in Abbeville v. State, a case launched in 1993 by the Abbeville County School District for itself and 42 other rural districts. They alleged that the South Carolina education financing system violated the state and federal constitutions because it allowed major disparities in per-pupil spending between high- and low-wealth districts.

At the Otto-Eldred High School in Pennsylvania (above), teachers who stay 25 years get health insurance for life?among the perks to attract and retain teachers in this rural area.

The case "bounced around" on procedural issues until a trial was held in 2003, says Amanda Adler, a South Carolina-based lawyer who directs the Rural Education Finance Center of the Rural School and Community Trust. During the 101-day trial, witnesses described difficulties rural districts faced, including teacher turnover due to low salaries and meager benefits. In some of the districts, up to a quarter of the teachers leave each year, says Adler, meaning "these districts are hiring, at best, brand-new, inexperienced teachers ill-equipped to meet the needs of the student population and, at worst, uncertified, substandard staff lacking sufficient training in the educational process."

She adds that because these districts can't pay larger salary supplements like more affluent districts, the salaries are lower than in other districts, limiting the size and quality of their applicant pools. She cites the rural Marion County and Jasper County school districts, which pay $8,000 less on average than their neighboring Horry County and Beaufort County districts, respectively. When the trial judge ruled against them, the rural districts appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in 2008 but has not issued a ruling.

In a similar case, Adler reports, the Tennessee Supreme Court "explicitly recognized" in rulings in 1993 and 1995 that "properly paying teachers in remote and rural areas is an essential requirement" of the state's educational system.

Low-Cost Housing

Housing and local amenities for teachers are other issues many rural districts face. With half of South Carolina's teachers eligible for retirement in the next decade, the state Department of Education has developed architectural renderings for "Teacher Villages" that rural districts can develop to attract and house new teachers.

Districts can choose from various configurations of stand-alone units clustered together to provide "a sense of community" for teachers who would occupy them, says Allison Jacques, director of the agency's Office of Educator Preparation, Support and Assessment.

Meanwhile, when a property owner in Saluda, S.C., wanted to convert the top floor of his building into residential units last year, administrators in the town and the Saluda County School District saw it as a chance to provide affordable housing for their teachers and local law enforcement personnel. The town committed to match funds for the renovation.

With a $148,500 Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that went through the South Carolina Department of Commerce, and another grant from the state Housing Authority, the town worked with the owner to redevelop the space into six apartments, each with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen complete with appliances. The $300,000 project was completed last summer, and now teachers occupy three of the apartments, a sheriff's office dispatcher lives in a fourth, and two are available for teachers when the district has funding to hire them. The residents have easy access to a gym, restaurant, hair salon and bank on the first floor as well as to the schools where they teach.

Strange says such housing serves a purpose but also has an "offsetting effect" of creating "a kind of ghetto, where the teachers are isolated" from parents, students and residents. "The more teachers are part of the community, the more contact they have, the better they are going to do and the better their school and kids are going to do," he asserts. Instead, he suggests teachers rent a home and get assistance from the district to buy it. Or the district can offer an equity- sharing arrangement, where the district and a teacher purchase property, with the teacher becoming the sole owner after time. Particularly in rural districts, "anything you can do to address the housing needs by helping the teacher buy into the community is good," Strange says.