Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of applications Wabeno School District gets for job postings. This year, the school received eight or nine applications for some of its listings.
WABENO, Wis. – School is about to start in Wisconsin, and the Wabeno School District has been scrambling to fill open teaching positions.
Last year in this northern Wisconsin town – which has about 1,000 residents – a fifth-grade teaching job went unfilled for the whole year. A few years before that, 13 staff members quit all at once amid a clash with the former district administrator. That was 40% of the faculty.
Finding teachers to make a life in rural America these days isn’t easy. The population is declining. The schools are isolated. The pay is low. And that’s before you get into social considerations, like fewer dating and restaurant options.
From Wisconsin to New Hampshire, Illinois to Montana, rural districts are struggling with how to recruit and retain teachers, especially when the economy has been strong and well-prepared graduates have lots of other job options.
Wabeno only received eight or nine applications for some of its openings this year, said Jeffrey Walsh, superintendent of the school district. One of the school's job postings didn't get a single application well into August.
“You used to be able to sit back and they would fall in your lap,” Walsh said. “Now you have to pursue teachers to get them here.”
Union-busting law harmed rural districts
Teacher turnover in Wisconsin’s rural areas has been especially acute since a law signed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 all but eliminated collective bargaining. Now teachers enter into individual contracts with districts, subject to annual renewal. Few, if any, have job protection related to their seniority. And teachers now contribute more toward their benefits.
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Without union contracts and their financial incentives for those who stayed put until retirement, teachers were free to shop around – and to be poached by other districts.
The result, Walker said, was free agency for teachers – just like star wide receivers in the NFL. Districts could recruit and pay teachers based on how well they performed, Walker said.
When the changes hit Wisconsin schools, many veteran educators retired under the terms of their expiring collective bargaining agreements.
For younger and mid-career teachers, the new law spurred them to move. A lot. Teachers fled urban districts, like Milwaukee, for the suburbs. Teachers left rural districts for larger districts that paid more.
“We also have teachers that are leaving the state because they can find a better deal,” said Walsh, the Wabeno superintendent. In nearby Michigan and Minnesota, for instance, union protections are still in place for teachers.
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Big problems for little Wabeno
Tucked in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a 90-minute drive northwest of Green Bay, Wabeno sports a library fashioned like a log cabin. The Wabeno Logging Museum highlights what was historically the area's main industry.
In the school district, 21% of the 382 students are Native American. The rest are mostly white.
Teacher departures from the Wabeno district have continued to accelerate in the years since Wisconsin overhauled its teacher labor laws, said Wabeno Education Association President Liz Couillard, who teaches English and economics at the high school. Future raises were tiny, insurance rates increased and teachers felt alienated by the rural district administration’s heavy focus on student performance, she said. A power struggle ensued.
Without the protection of the union and a strong collective bargaining agreement, teachers also felt powerless to request improvements to their working conditions, she added.
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“Power has been taken away from educators,” Couillard said. “And especially in Wabeno, they are severely undervalued, underpaid, under-everything.”
New teachers were hired, then a new principal. But training new staff took time. Old routines were lost. Student proficiency scores on the state achievement tests started to dip for Wabeno students, falling 12 percentage points both in math and reading over the past three years, according to Wisconsin data.
In the 2015-16 school year, Wabeno received a report card that the district "Significantly Exceeds Expectations." In 2016-17, that dropped to "Exceeds Expectations," and in 2017-18, "Meets Few Expectations."
Jacki Seeber, a kindergarten teacher, said the constant staff turnover harmed student learning because it broke up the consistency of routines and connections between students and staff.
“It seems like we are trying to rebuild back to where we were before,” Seeber said.
More than just pay
Allison Space, the former elementary school principal in Wabeno, left in 2016 after 19 years in the district. She was frustrated by the direction of the district and felt she couldn't lead it effectively.
Space is now superintendent of Goodman-Armstrong Creek schools, another rural district located about 30 minutes away.
Two Wabeno staff members followed her when she left. Leadership plays a large role in keeping teachers in rural schools, she said. Teachers are not just looking for money.
As for the teacher exodus after a clash with then-district administrator Jennifer Vogler: She says the school district had major issues that predated her tenure and continue after it.
"The district is still having turnover with their teachers and administration, and students are leaving the district and their test scores are still low," said Vogler, now a behavior interventionist at Sturgeon Bay Schools, north of Green Bay along Lake Michigan. "I don’t know what else to say. It's been a pattern there since any one administrator has been there."
Teacher exoduses occur at both rural and urban schools. In rural locations like Wabeno, it's far harder for the district to fill the teacher shortage.
And throwing money at the problem doesn't help.
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In fact, said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Peter Goff, who has studied teacher retention in rural areas, educators value strong support systems, good school leadership and welcoming communities just as much as higher pay.
“Some people see (increasing compensation) as some sort of panacea, without understanding how other factors fit into it,” Peter Goff said.
And in some instances, teachers are searching for things money can’t buy in rural regions: bustling social scenes, a pool of eligible dating prospects or the excitement of big-city (or even suburban) life.
Consider David Lutze, a third grade teacher who left Goodman-Armstrong Creek School District for a teaching job 100 miles away in the city of Green Bay. Lutze used to be the youngest teacher in Goodman-Armstrong Creek, and his fiancée couldn’t find a job nearby.
“My options were to sit in my one-room apartment or hang out at the local tavern,” Lutze said. “The latter isn't really my thing and being that the town was so small, I didn't want to become the teacher who is at the watering hole every night of the week.”
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In other states: 'Grow-your-own' teacher, or hire one from overseas
Some districts are hoping to get rural high school students interested in education and help them stay in the pipeline to become a teacher. When they graduate, they can return to their home community for a job.
"Grow-your-own" programs may pay off in six or seven years, but the need for teachers is immediate, said Tony Warren, superintendent of Montana’s Turner School District.
Last year, when Warren’s previous district couldn’t fill a science teacher position, the staff recruited Christine Villano – from the Philippines. Using International Expert Resources, a global teacher recruitment company, Warren came across Villano and brought her to Montana.
Villano, who had taught at a Philippine private school, moved to the 85-person town of Opheim to advance her career, she said. She was also welcomed by the community.
“They cared so much that I was living all alone, so there were nights and days where they would call me and invite me to meals like lunch or dinner,” Villano said. “Whenever they heard that I wasn't able to go to school because I was sick they would call and wish me well. Some would even knock at my door to bring me comfort food.”
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Fostering deep relationships is one way the tiniest of schools can keep teachers, according to John David Ulferts, superintendent and principal at Shirland School District in Illinois.
Ulferts has researched how small rural schools recruit teachers. He found most are attracted to rural positions for family reasons. They remain there because of strong relationships with students, support from administrators, safe environments and small class sizes.
“The school is the community, and the community is the school,” said Jennifer Collins, who teaches education classes at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “The school is a driver in the community – it’s where we have events, it’s what we do on Friday nights, it’s the entertainment, it’s everything.”
Special scholarships for rural teachers
Montana State University has begun offering a scholarship for education students who complete their student teaching in a rural district. The scholarship especially helps cover students' costs if they end up paying rent on two apartments – one in the city with their friends from college, and one in the rural area where they student teach during the week, said Jayne Downey, a Montana State education professor.
On the other side of the country, the University of New Hampshire has started a special “residency” program for teachers to train for 15 months and then commit to a year-long teaching stint in the state’s remote North Country.
The program provides students with $28,000 per year and in-state tuition as they receive their master’s degree and teaching certifications. Graduates then are required to work for three years at a rural school in the state. The program will welcome its third class of students this year.
The work grew out of a $5 million Department of Education grant in 2016 that funded innovative models of recruiting, training and supporting teachers in rural districts nationwide.
At Wabeno, the search goes on
In August, there were still three empty positions in Wabeno: in second grade, sixth grade and high school English. On Friday, Walsh hired a sixth grade teacher and moved another teacher to cover the second grade class. The school's other openings are likely to remain unfilled this year.
"We’ve interviewed and talked to some really good people, but when we offer them the job, they decide they don’t want to live up here," Walsh said.
Walsh said Wabeno has sent principals to job recruitment fairs across the state in an attempt to get creative to fill the shortage. He's also considering offering signing bonuses to remain competitive with other schools.
“Your pool is limited,” Walsh said. “We are a small town and not everyone is looking to work in a small town. If they want to live up north, if they are outdoorsy people, this is a unique and great opportunity.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: First day of school: Teaching jobs go unfilled at rural schools