The Montrose County School District is not immune to a problem pervading schools throughout the country: teacher shortages.
This national shortage has been an issue for years, but a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) states that this issue has been “exacerbated by the pandemic.”
The EPI reported two main pushes for the teacher shortage: low pay and an increasingly stressful work environment.
The school district is the largest employer in Montrose county, with an average of 750 full-time employees and another 250 working part-time or less. Currently, the district has 35 vacancies, around 30 of which are for licensed teachers, said Matt Jenkins, public information officer for the Montrose County School District (MCSD).
So how are school districts like the one serving Montrose working to recruit new staff as well as looking to take care of staff in order to retain them?
“We are currently experiencing the same difficulty filling positions that many public school districts are facing as well,” MCSD Retention, Recruiting and Wellness Coordinator Ben Stephenson, said recently. “The district believes that by taking a more proactive, positive approach to recruiting / hiring / retention, we will be better able to address staff vacancies.”
MCSD has a few programs with this in mind. The school district initiated the Ambassador Program this past year. Under the program, staff members are sent to job fairs in order to connect with prospective employees.
The school district also hosted a Becoming an MCSD Teacher event earlier this month. Sixteen people attended and watched presentations from a representative for the Colorado Department of Education, along with two current MCSD teachers who obtained alternative licenses to teach. The main purpose of this event is to teach those interested in obtaining their teacher’s license through those alternative and traditional pathways.
Rebecca Johns, head secretary at Pomona Elementary, was among Becoming an MCSD Teacher attendees. Becoming a teacher has always been her goal, and she attended because she’s looking to finish her degree faster so she can get into a classroom.
Johns is originally from California, but followed her family's friends, the Mertens, out to Colorado. The Mertens have been working here at the high school after the move and supported Johns while she attended Colorado Mesa University.
Before connecting with Stephenson, Johns had a timeline of two years to get her degree — now she will be starting her alternative licensure program and teaching primary school in five months.
Jennifer Romo, a former MCSD student, also attended the event. Romo teaches pre-school at Johnson Elementary. She got into early childhood care after the birth of her son.
Although Romo has the licensure to teach early childhood, there are different licenses required to teach K-12 students. Looking into this separate licensure, Romo said ideally she would love to teach third grade students or younger.
“We have options now versus (a) traditional brick and mortar school,” said Romo. “Online college is difficult, but at least I get to do it at home and still be present for my kids.”
As someone who grew up locally, Romo’s goal of becoming a teacher at the district is full-circle, she said.
The MCSD is reaching out to potential employees from outside the district as well. This spring, the district hosted a tour for current students of Adams State University.
The purpose of these tours, said Stephenson, is to highlight what MCSD has to offer and encourage future teachers to work for them.
On March 23, Western Colorado University took a turn in having its future teachers come tour Montrose schools and meet school district representatives.
Two of these students, Bren Hawk and Stephenie Barstad, said this experience was more immersive than a job fair and allowed them to get a more honest feel for the school district. They also said the visit made them more likely to consider teaching in Montrose.
Although these events might be more helpful for potential employees, the school district is also planning more traditional outreach events.
“At the end of May, the district will be partnering with the City of Montrose in holding a job fair,” said Stephenson. “During this job fair the school district will be looking to fill both teaching and support positions.”
The school district has been especially focused on its special education departments.
At the March 14 school board meeting Director of HR Michelle Pottorff and Director of Special Education Millie Crem presented an update on staff recruitment and wellness.
This presentation focused on special education and special services staff, which includes speech and language pathologists, psychologists, and special education teachers.
Along with job fairs and the other events listed above, Pottorff and Crem explained incentives that are available for staff interested in these positions. Qualified special education teachers who relocate to Montrose may receive up to $3,000 in assistance for rent, deposits, or moving costs.
Another incentive involves MCSD covering up to $7,500 toward tuition for a qualified staff member who is looking to get a specific special education license.
The staff members who receive this endorsement must complete their degree within four years and must retain their position at the district for at least three years, otherwise they will be expected to pay their endorsement back.
Emily Sanburg, an affective needs paraprofessional at Montrose High School, also attended the Becoming an MCSD Teacher event. Having been in this position supporting kids with emotional and behavioral issues since the start of this school year, Sanburg is on track to become a special education teacher this August.
Sanburg graduated from MHS in 2014, and played volleyball for the school. This connection with the sport brought her back to the school to coach before moving on to the realm of teaching.
While finding teachers is difficult, so is retaining them once they are placed in a job. Montrose also intends to focus on this other aspect of fighting off teacher shortages by paying special attention to the needs of those teachers.
“The district is taking a focused effort on treating every staff member as an individual and addressing their physical, emotional and mental well-being,” Stephenson said.
Pottorff and Crem also said there is an extra focus on mental health support for their staff.