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Caleb Thielbar first debuted for the Minnesota Twins in the 2013 season. After a winding road through minor league and independent baseball — with pit stops at Driveline Baseball — Thielbar is back with the Twins and looking better than ever. (Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins)

Local schools look to create more educators, diversify workforce with new classes

Class sizes are growing and becoming more diverse, but teachers, especially teachers of color, are getting harder and harder to find in Minnesota.

But now, new classes are coming to local schools, including Faribault, Owatonna, Tri-City United, Le Sueur-Henderson, Waseca and more, which aim to help students pursue a career in education and encourage young students of color to consider teaching as a profession. It's a new approach in trying to grow a teacher field, both in diversity and in general.

Grow Your Own

The new curriculum is being made possible from a competitive grant through a state program called Grow Your Own. In partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato, eight school districts (Faribault, Owatonna, Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United, St. Peter, Waseca, Mankato and Centennial) received $376,000 from the MDE to offer a new class to high school students.

The class, titled Exploring Careers in Education, is a college-level class that will be offered to high school students next year. Within the course, students will not just learn about teaching but a variety of careers in education. Students can earn three college credits transferable to MNSU and also receive hands-on experience.

“Our classes will have something like a student teaching experience,” said Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School Principal Brian Thorstad. “When someone is in college, they get to go out and student teach and have that experience. We look forward to offering those types of experiences on a smaller scale.”

Unlike the other districts, Owatonna will be using grant monies to pilot a different course: Introduction to Critical Race Theory in Education. Because the district already has an Intro to Education course, Critical Race Theory was selected as a class that could increase Owatonna’s education career-based offerings. Like the other course, this class will be implemented in cooperation with MNSU and will be worth three college credits.

School districts hope that these classes will create a student-to-teacher pipeline. By offering college credit to high school students, the program intends to give local students a head start at earning their teacher’s license. Creating educational experiences locally may also lead students, particularly students of color, to consider teaching in their communities.

“It’s to recognize that there are viable opportunities for their future careers right here in our community,” said Teri Preisler, a former Owatonna educator who retired as Tri-City superintendent in June. “Just like we’ve been doing job shadows and partnerships with our skill trade employers and health services. It’s for students in the educational pathway to explore and experience education as a career and they may then consider coming back into our area … If we are able to attract them to come back at some point to the communities of Tri-City United, that’s a thriving win for everyone.”

Pipeline programs like Grow Your Own have seen significant success in Minnesota. In a 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Education, 17% of school districts surveyed reported that pipeline programs made a big difference in their efforts to recruit standard licensed teachers, while another 70% said it made some or a slight difference.

Teaching shortages

Finding effective strategies to recruit and retain teachers is becoming more important than ever for schools in Minnesota. More than half of Minnesota schools districts in 2019 reported that they have been receiving significantly less applications and more than 40% see it as a major problem.

“Sometimes you’re not able to fill a position with someone who has all of their licensures, so you need to use variances or work through pathways or other means of licensure,” said Preisler. “We have a reduced pool and you got to move very quickly and sometimes you just want to make sure you have a pool of a size that garners the highest possible quality candidates. We have been fortunate to find high-quality candidates for our positions, but it’s getting harder.”

Preisler mentioned that one of the challenges with recruiting teachers is that public schools often have limited budgets to work with. A district that is reliant on mostly on state aid, as well as an operating levy, has to balance its funding while offering a competitive salary and benefits.

One cause of the shortage is that many qualified teachers simply aren’t teaching. The MDE found that in 2019, more than half of teachers with an active license (52%) were not working in Minnesota public schools.

Shortages also limit the availability of teachers with specialized skills. More than 10% of teachers specializing in subjects like hospitality service, careers like transportation, medicine and manufacturing, computer science, theater and dance, autism, as well as languages, like Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Hmong, are teaching under special permission or out of compliance.

“The number of applicants for each position really depends on what teaching position is posted, some positions get more applicants than others,” said Thorstad.

The Le Sueur-Henderson principal said that while candidate pools have been smaller, in the year since he started his position, the school has been able to find high quality candidates.

“I think, overall, we always want the largest candidate pool possible so that we can select the best of the best from the candidate pool to go through our interview process,” said Thorstad. “Ultimately, that’s what positively impacts students the most is hiring the best of the best to be teachers.”

Teacher diversity

Another goal of the Grow Your Own program is to help more students of color pursue careers as educators. Diversity in teaching remains a major issue all across Minnesota, with student bodies being far more diverse than their teachers.

Between all the MEP districts, 24% of the student body come from diverse backgrounds, while just 2.7% of teaching staff are non-white. In 2018-19, almost 52% of Faribault students are non-white; in Owatonna it's about 25 percent. In both districts, the percentage of teachers of color is even lower than the group's average. In Faribault it's 1.4% and in Owatonna it's 2%.

“Teachers of color matter for all students, especially students of color,” said Anne Marie Leland, community education director for Faribault Public Schools and the grant writer on behalf of MEP. “Over the last decade, studies have shown the benefits of having teachers of color and the positive impact on students’ academic performance, graduation rates, social and emotional well-being and more students of color indicating their desire to attend and be successful in college.”

But school districts all across Minnesota have found difficulties in recruiting teachers of color. Just 4.2% of teachers in Minnesota are from diverse backgrounds. While classes have grown more diverse, the number of teachers of color in Minnesota has remained stagnant.

Grow Your Own aims to increase the number of people of color pursuing education by giving them an early pathway.

“The conversation that we’re having now and around equity, this is one significant step forward for these eight districts and Mankato in partnership for our students of color,” said Faribault's Leland.

An MDE survey found that a larger share (9%) of school districts that implemented pipeline programs saw big differences in hiring people of color compared to school districts employing financial incentives, competitive salaries and posting position offerings outside their local areas. About 40% of school districts with pipeline programs reported some or a slight difference in recruitment, but 50% have seen no differences at all.


Retaining teachers of color is also an issue for school districts. Since 2000, turnover rates for teachers of color have been higher than the turnover rates of white teachers.

A report from Teach Plus, titled “If You Listen We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover” surveyed 88 teachers of color on challenges they faced in the workforce. The report, which was cited by Leland in her research applying for the grant, found five significant obstacles teachers of color run into.

First, respondents to the survey reported hostile work cultures where their ideas and contributions were undervalued compared to their white peers. They reported feeling unrecognized for their work and not being given room to adapt lessons to better fit their students. A general lack of support and the high financial and psychological costs that come with being a teacher also contributed to their decisions to leave.

Thorstad hoped that the Grow Your Own program would help create a more diverse workforce, but added that it would take some time for the effects to be realized.

“One component of this program is that some districts have offered this course in the past in association with other programs such as AVID and I believe they have seen a certain level of success,” said Thorstad. “These are the first steps in addressing these issues with this specific grant. It takes a little bit longer for students to gain interest in the career field of education and then obviously multiple other steps have to happen after leaving this course and leaving this school district … I think it, unfortunately, takes years sometimes before we see impacts of this.”

Heers family farms solar, swine, corn, soybeans, peas

Bob Heers and his family farm 2,600 acres near Owatonna, and were named Steele County Farm Family of the Year in 2010 by the University of Minnesota.

They finish 10,000 pigs a year and row crop corn, soybeans, and peas. Though the farm has expanded, it was started by Bob’s father and grandfather in the 1950s when they moved to Steele County. In 2015, when his sons Matt and Nate entered the farm operation, Bob invested in the future by adding 80kW of solar energy.

Taking control of energy bills

The solar installation is divided into two 40 kW systems across 12 dual-axis trackers, which allows the farm to receive the net metering retail price when they produce more electricity than they use. While Matt Heers thinks the trackers “are kind of cool to watch as they move during the day,” he notes that “the real benefit is that the solar panels lock in our electricity costs for the future.” Bob confirms that the farm used to pay about $17,000 a year in electrical costs, but with the PV systems they now have a net energy income of around $1,500 per year.

The arrays are dual-axis trackers, which means they follow the path of the sun during the day, both vertically and horizontally, to maximize the electrical output. When asked about maintenance, Matt said that they were once called by the monitoring company to turn the trackers on and off, and once during a heavy snow they had to shovel snow from around the bottom edge of several of the units.

Working with the installer and utility

The solar arrays were installed by Blue Horizon Energy and come with a 10-year monitoring system that has its own Wi-Fi, and uses a Vermont-based company to detect any problems with system generation. Both Bob and Matt shared stories of a Blue Horizon maintenance team stopping to fix a problem they didn’t even know was occurring.

Barry Thompson, a Blue Horizon Energy sales representative said “installing a consistent monitoring system with its own internet connection actually saves time and money in problem-solving.” Thompson said that most issues are discovered within 24 hours.

Heers Family Farms are in the Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric territory. Bob said the coop was “good to work with.”

Paying for solar

“The biggest barrier is the up-front cost, which is substantial, especially in this economy,” said Bob. “But I take the long view, especially because my sons are entering the farm operation,” he continued. Heers said that the farm was able to use the 30% federal tax credit, and received a 2016 USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant of $20,000. That in addition to the accelerated depreciation has meant that the solar systems will break even in about 10 years and provide about a 10% annual return on their investment.

The federal tax credit allows businesses to offset taxes by a percentage of the cost of a solar energy system. While it was 30% for systems installed through the end of 2019, in 2020 it is set at 26% of the cost, in 2021 will be reduced to 22%, and thereafter set at 10%. REAP grants can be used for either energy efficiency or renewable energy projects by an agricultural producer or a rural small business. The next deadline for REAP applications is in October of 2020.

Because of a challenging farm economy the last several years, there are fewer applicants for the same amount of REAP funds. Applicants who can move forward with projects now will be in a stronger position to win REAP grant funding compared to past years.

Medford Civic Club brings back selfie challenge

After a wildly successful inaugural year, the selfie challenge in Medford is back for round two.

“We thought that this is something that we could still do this year that is still following all the COVID-19 social distancing rules,” said Erin Sammon, president of the Medford Civic Club, which organizers the challenge. “This will help keep people out, active and give them something to do when there really isn’t a whole lot going on.”

Families and individuals are encouraged to explore Medford throughout the month of July with a selfie scavenger hunt, locating nine spots within the Medford city limits to take a photo that matches the exact locations provided by the Civic Club. After posting the selfies on the Facebook event page, Instagram, or Twitter using the hashtag #exploremedfordmn, the name of the poster will be entered into a random drawing for three different prizes.

“We’ll be doing them at random with three different sets of winners,” Sammon said. “It’s completely random and everyone has a fair chance to win, it’s not time sensitive either so you don’t have to be the first to post or get the most votes to win.”

Sammon said that the Civic Club has put together three different prize packages that all have a family theme, stating that they want to make sure they are appealing to everybody. The package themes are Water Fun., Grilling Out, and Family Game Night. Sammon said each package is worth an estimated $100.

“We want to appeal to everyone and make sure that people know it’s not just for kids,” Sammon said. “You can have multiple people in the photo, the entire family, whatever you want — just make sure that we can verify that you are in the right location.”

The locations are posted on the Medford Civic Club event page on Facebook, Explore Medford Selfie Contest 2020 at Winners will be tagged on the event page and prizes must be claimed within two days. All nine selfies must be submitted by July 31 to be eligible to win.

Mike Forcia, who is Anishanaabe, left, and another man fasten ropes around the neck of a statue of Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on June 10, 2020. (Evan Frost/MPR News file)