Over the last decade, school districts, especially those serving rural areas, have found it increasingly difficult to fill all of their open positions with qualified teachers.
In Rice County, Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker and Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann say they’ve consistently been able to fill nearly all of their teaching vacancies with well-qualified teachers. But the pool isn’t what it once was, and they know that not all of their peers — especially in smaller districts — have been so fortunate.
“One of the things that all districts know is that pool of candidates is not as deep as it once was,” Hillmann said. “While at Northfield Public Schools we have been extremely fortunate that we have had high quality candidates… we used to have a deeper pool.”
In hopes of addressing this problem, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, has partnered with Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, to introduce a bill to provide school districts with flexible grants that they could use for a variety of programs to address the teaching shortages. Smith’s Addressing Teacher Shortages Act would require that at least 25% of grant funding go toward addressing shortages in rural areas, at least 25% go toward subject areas with the highest needs, at least 25% of funding go toward diversifying the teaching workforce, and at least 5% go to Bureau of Indian Education schools.
In 2018, Smith and Jones introduced a similar bill, with Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and West Virginia Rep. Alex Mooney introducing a companion bill in the House. But neither the House or Senate versions of the 2018 bill received a committee hearing. In March, Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill with similar goals, known as the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals Act.
The increasingly severe shortage is particularly acute in subject areas such as Special Education, STEM and foreign language. According to Department of Education Data, during the 2017-18 school year, 48 states reported shortages of math teachers, 46 reported shortages of special education teachers, 43 reported shortages of science teachers, and 41 reported shortages of foreign language teachers. The problem is more acute in rural districts, with more than 40% of small, rural school districts saying they struggle to adequately staff their schools.
A lack of teacher diversity is also a major issue. With student bodies in urban, suburban and rural school districts rapidly becoming more diverse, the teaching workforce is struggling to keep up. Nationally, just 18% of teachers are people of color, compared to 51% of students.
An analysis from independent think tank Learning Policy Institute noted that while the percentage of Latino teachers increased substantially from 1987 to 2015, the gap between the percentage of Latino students and Latino teachers was the largest of any racial group. Furthermore, the percentage of teachers who are African-American actually declined from 1987 to 2015, even as the percentage of first-year teachers identifying as African-American doubled — highlighting the issue of teacher attrition.
Fewer enrolling in teaching programs
Education Minnesota President Denise Sprecht said that the teaching shortage is being driven by two major issues. First, too few teachers are entering teaching programs. A 2016 analysis from the Learning Policy Institute showed that teacher education enrollment fell 35% from 2009 to 2014.
The high cost of college is one major barrier that often prevents students from entering the teaching profession. Minnesota ranks near the top of lists of per-capita student loan debt, and once aspiring teachers complete their coursework, they often struggle to pay off student loan debt while also covering necessary cost of living expenses. Aspiring teachers also often have to undergo unpaid student teaching internships in order to complete their training, further adding to the cost.
The high cost of college is oftentimes even more of an issue for aspiring African-American and Latino teachers. According to the Brookings Institute, African-Americans who earn a bachelor’s degree begin their careers on average with $7,400 more in student loan debt than their white counterparts. This differential more than triples to $25,000 within four years of graduation. While the average debt load of Latino students is similar to that of white students, many Latino graduates struggle to make ends meet after graduation and default on their loans twice as often as white students.
Beginning teachers earn approximately 20% less than other college graduates, a gap that widens to 30% by mid-career. Because of the high cost of getting a teaching degree and the comparably low pay, many students who may be interested in teaching instead choose more lucrative occupations. Many teachers continue to receive robust benefit packages, but they only partially makes up for the wage gap.
“When it comes to trying to pay off student debt, teaching and other professions make it difficult,” Sprecht said. “Once teachers get a teaching job, they find it’s very hard to make ends meet.”
Smith and Jones’ bill would help districts address this issue by opening up increased funding for “2+2” programs. These programs enable students to save money by spending two years at a community college and two years at a four-year college, as opposed to spending all four years at the more expensive four-year college. The bill would also increase provisions for housing allowances, stipends and tuition for student and beginning teachers.
Area districts experiment with “Grow Your Own” programs
“Grow Your Own” programs are another popular way to achieve increased diversity and class sizes. These programs, which seek to encourage students to consider and explore teaching as a potential occupation, have been touted as a key way to increase diversity and achieve the goal of helping teaching staffs to more closely resemble the student body.
In an attempt to grow its own teachers, Kenyon-Wanamingo High School has begun offering an Introduction to Education course as an elective course for students in grades 11 and 12. Superintendent Jeff Pesta highlighted the course as a cornerstone of the district’s strategy to combat the teacher shortage.
“If you can get (one of our own students) interested in teaching, they’re the ones most likely to come back, because they have family and friends in the area,” Pesta said. “The course sparks interest in students who didn’t consider it before, and it increases our chances of getting a potentially diverse teaching staff that reflects our community because they came from our community.”
Faribault High School has begun an even more comprehensive program to encourage more students to consider teaching as a potential career. Known as Teacher Cadets, the yearlong course gives juniors and seniors the opportunity to plan lessons, teach students of a variety of levels and receive mentorship and guidance from Faribault teachers, while providing students with college credits from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“We’re reaching out to a diverse population in our high school,” said Superintendent Sesker. “We’re hoping students will take interest in education and continue with it in college.”
Attrition rates remain stubbornly high
The other half of the problem is that many teachers are leaving their profession. One major portion of this issue is a lack of support for new and developing teachers. Smith’s bill attempts to deal with this by enabling program grants to be used for measures such as induction programs for new teachers, teacher mentorship programs and increased access to technology for professional development in rural areas.
Many beginning and even veteran teachers also feel overloaded by the lack of support staff in many schools. Due to limited funding, Minnesota school districts have often been forced to skimp on school counselors, psychologists and nurses. As a result, Minnesota has a student to counselor ratio of 720 students to 1 counselor, the fourth highest of any state.
With so few support professionals asked to support so many students, the task of supporting students often falls to classroom teachers.
“Teachers feel like they can’t do their jobs and be a nurse, dietician and counselor at the same time,” said Education Minnesota President Sprecht. “When essential programs are being cut, it makes a teacher’s job very difficult,” she added.
Many districts struggle to find qualified applicants for school counseling, nurse and psychologist positions. With so few applicants, especially for part-time positions, Northfield’s Hillmann noted that schools often end up having to contract for counseling and mental health services. The cost of these services is often much higher than that of hiring a qualified counselor or psychologist, and the quality of care and assistance often much lower.
With the burden of supporting students’ mental health and career planning needs falling more and more on classroom teachers, Sprecht recalled how out of her depth she felt trying to help students through immense difficulties while also learning the ropes of being an effective and helpful teacher.
“I was a second-grade teacher knew how to teach reading and doubles,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to deal with students who just lost a family member or had a parent who just got laid off.”
After surpassing the 10-year mark last year, the Paradise Center for the Arts Blue Collar BBQ and Arts Fest is now so big it spans three blocks.
“We needed more room, which is always awesome,” said Kristen Twitchell, Paradise Center for the Arts executive director.
Twelve hours of music from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., family activities, competitions and over 26 vendors extend along the 100, 200 and 300 blocks on Central Avenue Saturday, Aug. 10.
This year, the Twitchell said the Family and Cultural Stage has expanded to include internationally known children’s group The Teddy Bear Band in addition to fire twirlers, hula dancers, the Ollin Ayacaxtly/Aztec Dance Circle of Northfield and the Spontaneous Productions family improvisation group. Face painting and bouncy houses also make for fun children’s activities.
“It’s actually a great event for families,” said Twitchell. “And one of the things that makes the festival unique is the variety of music.”
The Main Stage music lineup begins at 11 a.m. with the local Lakelanders Barbershop Chorus, performing traditional tunes. At noon, the urban bluegrass band Sawtooth Brothers takes the stage. Greazy Biscuits performs Grand Ole Opry tunes at 1:15 p.m., and Sawyer’s Dream gives a nod to the 50th anniversary of Woodstock at 3 p.m. with original music from the 1970s. The Moses Oakland Quartet, a staple at Blue Collar BBQ and Arts Fests, concludes the free performances at 4:30 p.m. with energetic blues music.
As these performers play, other daytime events include the increasingly popular bean bag tournament sponsored by Judd Ostermann and Demro, $4 drinks at the beer garden, and, of course, the barbecue cook-off.
Eric Craig of Judd Ostermann and Demro said the bean bag tournament has space for 32 teams this year. Last year, when he only accepted 24 teams, there were more who wanted to participate. As of the last week of July, he said 19 teams already signed up. The tournament is open to all ages.
The Remote Control Demolition Derby, an event coordinated by the Southern Minnesota RC Club, is new to the BBQ and Arts Fest this year. A hit at Dam Days in Morristown, it was Mayor Kevin Voracek, chair of the BBQ and Arts Fest, who added the derby to the block party lineup.
“We added it to the festival to broaden our horizons and see if we can introduce people who have different levels of fun to our music culture,” said Voracek. “We’re always looking for ways to keep our festival relevant and entertaining.”
Artisan, food and nonprofit vendors will sell a wide variety of products, and guests may sign up for a cash raffle sponsored by the Southeastern Minnesota Rugby Association. Tickets are $5 with a chance to win $1,000. The sponsor splits a portion of the proceeds from the raffle and the pull tabs with the Paradise Center.
At 6 p.m., when the headline performers begin to play, the festival requires attendees to wear wristbands. $10 charge to see the Main Stage lineup. Children 12 and under are free all day/evening.
“The reality is, you could not go anywhere and see those three bands for $10, so we hope folks understand it’s a small nonprofit, and we needed additional income on it,” said Twitchell.
The Main Stage event begins at 6 p.m. with award-winning Hall of Fame blues musician PK Mayo. Next in line at 7:15 p.m. is Martin Zellar and the Hardways, a big Minnesota headliner led by the former lead singer of Gear Daddies. Cover band Street Talk concludes the evening starting at 9 p.m. with ‘80s rock/street dance music. Drummer/vocalist Scott Amundson is a former Faribault resident.
According to Twitchell, it takes over 100 volunteers to make the festival possible. Those who volunteer receive a free T-shirt and wristband for the evening music lineup. The Paradise Center continues to accept volunteers.
“There are so many local businesses that provide financial and in-kind support as well as all the volunteers that make the event happen, and we really appreciate all the work they do to make it happen,” said Twitchell.
Added Voracek: “Hopefully we can win another (Southern Minn. Scene) Best Music Festival of Southern Minnesota this year.”
ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said he’d call on lawmakers to take up gun control measures next week when they return to the capital to discuss turnover at the Department of Human Services.
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor on Monday said he’d bring up the topic on a call with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, later in the day. Gazelka has blocked a pair of gun control bills from getting a hearing in a Senate committee, saying they wouldn’t have the support needed to pass in that chamber.
The calls to convene a hearing on Minnesota gun laws come days after shooters in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, opened fire in a Walmart and a crowded bar killing 30 people and injuring dozens.
“I just think the deafening silence of not doing anything, of rejecting the possibility of a hearing simply can’t go on any longer,” Walz told reporters. “They’ve found time next week to have a hearing on DHS, I would say I would suggest that they stay a little longer and do insulin and guns.”
Democratic lawmakers this year brought a pair of gun control measures that they said would help cut down on gun violence in Minnesota. Both passed the DFL-controlled House but didn’t come up for a hearing in the Republican-led Senate. A panel of House and Senate members didn’t have the needed support to add the bills to a larger public safety and judiciary spending bill.
The first proposal would’ve required background checks at the point of transfer of a pistol or semiautomatic military-style assault weapon. Exceptions would be made for firearm transfers to an immediate family member, transfers while hunting, at a shooting competition or at a gun range.
Gazelka on Twitter Sunday night said the background checks on gun sales haven’t proven effective in preventing mass shootings.
“Most gun purchases already require background checks,” Gazelka said. “Universal background checks on sales to relatives & friends have not proven to eliminate deranged murderers from killing innocent people. We will focus on mental health issues, and tougher penalties when thugs use guns.”
Lawmakers also took up a measure earlier this year that would allow law enforcement to remove a person’s firearms if they are believed to pose a danger to themselves or others. The bill passed the House but didn’t come up for a hearing in the Senate.
Advocates seeking tighter restrictions are set to hold a rally near the Capitol on Wednesday night.
President Donald Trump on Monday called for bipartisan gun legislation and stronger mental health policy at the federal level. Trump also suggested that the Department of Justice bring the death penalty for those who commit hate crimes.