A troublesome teacher shortage has Minnesota public schools fighting for hires and scrambling to hold on to newcomers now testing their skills in classrooms across the state.
In St. Paul, that means offering jobs earlier than ever for 2017-18 and moving now to put candidates in the pipeline for 2018-19.
Teachers of color in the Anoka-Hennepin district are working together to fight the isolation that can torpedo careers.
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan is bracing for retirements, while growing districts like Shakopee strive to help recent recruits build a foundation that will keep them in the fold for years to come.
Still, Minnesota, like many states, has a supply-and-demand problem — 200-plus teaching jobs were posted in February alone in the areas of math, science and special education — with no quick fixes guaranteed among the legislative proposals, one of which targets the licensing process itself and is aimed at boosting the teaching ranks.
Nearly 90 percent of the demand for teachers nationally is due to the need to replace those who have left, said Leib Sutcher, research associate for the Learning Policy Institute, a national education research nonprofit.
"If districts and states could keep the teachers they do have, that would go a long way in solving shortages," Sutcher said.
Last week, Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, a retired teacher and committee chairwoman, pitched a variety of ideas on behalf of the Minnesota School Boards Association.
"It's a hot issue," she said, adding that she could not say whether the proposals "really have answers to the problem."
Stakes are high. Federal law says every student should have equal access to a quality teacher.
Legislators and education advocates are pushing on multiple fronts.
Erickson and others see promise in a separate bill she is promoting that would ease the path to licensure for teachers coming from outside Minnesota.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have created "grow your own" programs making it possible for people already in their ranks — aides now working in classrooms, for example — to become teachers themselves. Richfield has a similar plan in the works.
This week, legislators will see the latest stage in a fast-moving effort by higher-education leaders, minority activists and teachers union representatives to ease the way for more new teachers of color by providing stipends to help families get by while they fulfill student-teaching requirements.
But increasing the number of teachers who look like and can relate to the challenges of the students they serve is one thing. Preventing young teachers, and not just those who are minority-group members, from flaming out and leaving the profession at persistently worrying rates also is a priority for districts and for teachers themselves.
Stemming that exodus takes creativity and hard work.
Strength at home
In February, the state Department of Education released a report on teacher supply and demand showing that more than a quarter of Minnesota teachers left their jobs after the third year. About 15 percent quit after one year, according to the study.
Special-education teachers and those in the STEM fields, particularly science and math, remain in high demand — as they have for years.
At Frost Lake Elementary on St. Paul's East Side, Elizabeth Thao is working to become a special-education teacher under the guidance of a mentor, Karen Cory. Thao is part of the first cohort of the St. Paul Urban Teacher Residency program, which takes former teaching assistants like herself and puts them on a fast track to a teaching license through hands-on training and coursework at the University of St. Thomas.
Minneapolis has a residency program, too, and both cities bank on the idea that talent nurtured at home will stay at home.
During a visit last week to Frost Lake, Cory praised Thao's skill in dealing with parents of special-ed kids. Thao had an easy manner with the children, too, in particular a boy named Eevis who couldn't let go of the fact that a drawing accompanying a Shel Silverstein poem about dancing was that of a bare-bottomed girl. As part of the exercise, Eevis had to complete a sentence about the poem he had selected. Thao read the question.
"I chose this poem because ____?"
"The girl is naked," Eevis said.
"But is it really about being naked?"
"It is about dancing."
"Good," she said.
Even after Thao graduates in the summer and begins work as a teacher in the fall, her tutelage is not done. During a three-year probationary period, Thao, like all new teachers in the state's second-largest district, again will be assigned a mentor and undergo intensive peer review in her second year.
St. Paul's three-year retention rate for teachers hired in 2013 was 55 percent, according to Laurin Cathey, the district's human resources director. For teachers of color, however, the rate was 63 percent, he said.
Hans Ott, the district's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, who helps guide training efforts, advises not to get too caught up in the percentages. It is the quality of the work that matters: "It's not just retention for retention's sake, it's retaining teachers who are best for St. Paul kids," Ott said. Along with colleague Amy Steele, he is taking feedback from teachers of color, for example, to personalize their support as much as possible.
Path to a license
Six years ago Rebecca Edberg hardly had to recruit at all. Last month, Edberg attended multiple job fairs scouting recruits to fill White Bear Lake teaching jobs, where she is a human resources coordinator. After two days recruiting in Iowa, she had one student willing to look at Minnesota licensing requirements.
Those requirements are often a hurdle, she said.
"Given our current pool of teachers teaching right now and their potential retirement dates, any quicker path … would be better to ignite that passion in them before they fail a test," Edberg said.
Minnesota educators are hoping that a bill moving through the Legislature could ease the path for a teaching license, making it more attractive for teachers to move to the state. The bill would create an entity that would replace the Board of Teaching and develop a tiered licensing system.
Kirstin Rogers, a 45-year-old part-time literacy coach in Minneapolis, taught in Utah for 12 years and was a part of a group of teachers who sued the Board of Teaching in 2015 for denying licenses to teachers like her. Rogers said she often hears the excuse that the state needs high standards for incoming teachers.
"But there are no standards," she said. "Every university tells you something different, and there is no one at the Minnesota Department of Education who can tell you what you need to do to be licensed."
To get more teachers in the door, Shakopee is looking at building a staff from within. In the next few years, Shakopee Public Schools plans on adding a teaching option to its Academies of Shakopee program, where students can study and follow a specific career path like Human Services to learn about the teaching profession.
New teachers in Shakopee get the opportunity to take part in a one-year induction program, which includes a workshop week. During that time, they are assigned a mentor who will regularly check in with them.
As a growing district, Shakopee has a younger staff, unlike the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, which grew in the 1980s and '90s. With a much older staff, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan's retirement bubble could burst soon.
"We are happy to have had them this long, but now we have the challenge of replacing these experienced teachers in a time when they are preparing less teachers at these universities," said Tom Pederstuen, the district's human resources director.
At yearly retirement meetings, Kate Schmidt, Dakota County United Educators president, would see about 40 to 80 district teachers attend. This year, Schmidt counted about 240 teachers who signed up for the meeting.
Keeping it local
On Wednesday, the St. Paul school district welcomed the next class of students to take part in its Urban Teacher Residency program. The scene was festive, with balloons afloat, but businesslike, too, as the 14 candidates listened to a briefing on program particulars. Sitting in the back of the room, dressed in the purple colors of the University of St. Thomas, were 2016-17 participants Talisha Jackson and Mario Luna.
Luna, who takes pride in being part of the pioneering cohort, had rushed over from practice with a ninth-grade team that he coaches at Humboldt High. He smiled as he recalled his "signing day" ceremony a year ago. Not as many balloons, he said.
Like Thao, who student-teaches at Frost Lake Elementary, Luna and Jackson are products of the St. Paul schools, and on track, too, to become special-education teachers. Each is aware of being a potentially hot commodity on the job market. But they aren't going anywhere.
"This is my passion," Jackson said. "This is where I belong."