The day before Dani Denison was set to begin student teaching at a metro-area high school, she sent an e-mail to the teacher who had agreed to host her.

The teacher's reply came with an apology. Because of a scheduling conflict, she couldn't take her on.

"I thought to myself, 'Now what am I going to do?' " asked Denison, who had moved in with her parents in the Twin Cities after weeks of not getting placed by Bemidji State University. "I don't have a job. I'm living with my parents. How am I ever going to teach?"

Across Minnesota, colleges and universities are struggling to place the state's next generation of educators into student teaching roles, widely considered a crucial step in teacher training. It has become a national problem, compounded in recent years by high-stakes student testing that puts increased demands on teachers and leaves little time for the rigors of mentoring.

"If we can't place them, it creates a huge financial pressure on the student and is certainly a major setback toward their career," said Kitty Foord, president of the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and associate professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "At Mankato, we work our tails off to make sure it doesn't happen."

Part of the problem is driven by supply and demand. It is particularly challenging to find qualified host teachers in certain specialty areas such as science, special education and English language learner (ELL) instruction.

And some of the state's most highly skilled veteran teachers are reluctant to take on the extra responsibility of hosting a student teacher when they have been asked to do other demanding new tasks such as serving as peer evaluators, a vital function under Minnesota's new teacher evaluation law.

"They've really experienced an increase in workload due to curriculum changes and testing requirements," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. "Many feel like they can't take on a student teacher if they can't do it well."

Some teacher types scarce

Janine Wahl, director of clinical experiences at Bemidji State, said there was nothing in Denison's educational background that precluded her from being placed. Her grades were good, she interviewed well, and had completed all the necessary coursework.

"She's a wonderful candidate," Wahl said.

The only problem for Denison, Wahl concedes, is that she wants to teach high school social studies.

Minnesota, like other states, already has an ample supply of those teachers in the classroom and in the pipeline.

Teachers who work with students learning English are a very different story, but just as challenging.

John Melick, director of field experiences for the University of St. Thomas, estimated that there were just 25 high school English language learner teachers in the St. Paul School District whom he could turn to for help in placing a candidate.

"You have to find a host teacher who holds an ELL license, who's licensed to teach a specific grade level, and has their administrators' support," he said. "When you put all those together, the number of qualified teachers is very small."

Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said the placement problem is requiring a surprising shift in student teaching. No longer can teaching colleges strictly approach a school district with a placement request. They have to demonstrate that putting the candidate in the classroom will benefit student learning, she said.

"The old service model doesn't work anymore."

'I feel pretty strapped'

Kari Peterson is a veteran first-grade teacher in the Cambridge-Isanti School District. She's agreed to host a student teacher in the past but won't do it now.

"It's really important for me that a student teacher have the best experience possible," she said. "And I feel pretty strapped right now. I have many more responsibilities, more meetings, and I feel like overall expectations of me are very high right now. It's hard to imagine taking on additional responsibilities."

Teachers who agree to take on student teachers must offer a formal evaluation, help them develop lessons plans, critique those lesson plans, and stay in frequent contact with the candidate's clinical adviser. Mentor teachers do receive a small stipend, which varies among teaching colleges.

In recent years, Minnesota has significantly ramped up requirements for teachers entering the profession. For example, the time student teachers must spend in the classroom has been extended from a minimum of 10 weeks to 12 weeks. Two years ago, the Minnesota Board of Teaching adopted a student teacher performance assessment that among other things requires student teachers to be videotaped and critiqued by specially trained evaluators.

There are some lawmakers who believe student teachers should have even more training before they enter the classroom.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, has proposed legislation that would require publicly funded teacher education programs to offer an option of a yearlong student-teaching practicum.

"We lose two out of five teachers within the first five years, and I think part of the reason is they just weren't ready to teach," Urdahl said.

Sink or swim

One way Minnesota teaching colleges and universities have found to entice school districts to accept student teachers is by promoting a co-teaching model developed by St. Cloud State University.

"Most programs used to prepare teachers by dropping them in a classroom for 10 to 12 weeks while at some point the mentor teacher steps away," said Stacy Ernst, a student teaching coordinator at the University of Minnesota. "It was the old sink or swim model. And we know that that's not good for kids, it's not good for student teachers and it's not good for teachers."

Solutions won't come fast enough for Denison, who won't be placed in a classroom until this fall.

The delay has forced her to get a 40-hour-a-week job at a child care facility in Plymouth.

"My life has been pushed back by six months," she said. "But I don't really want to focus on the negative. I just really want to teach."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469