Park City School

Park City School, pictured Wednesday, October 4, 2017.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Park City schools used to get more than 100 applications for an elementary teaching job. Now, they’re lucky to get five.

That’s how superintendent Dan Grabowska found himself at Montana State University on a snowy December evening, talking to teaching students — not so much about his school, specifically, but about teaching in any small, rural school.

Park City, about 20 minutes from Billings, can seem downright metropolitan compared to some Montana towns. Educators making their pitch at MSU represented schools from Savage, population 359 and a 250 mile drive from Billings, to Thompson Falls, population 1,313 and a 100 mile drive from Missoula.

This is the second year that MSU held a gathering of rural educators with students at the university for informational sessions. It’s not a job interview, nor official recruiting. But it’s many students' first introduction to rural education — and school leaders' first chance to make an impression.

“We thought, 'Well, what better way to bring some administrators and teachers from rural Montana to meet our students?” said MSU professor Tena Versland.

The problem

The idea of a teacher shortage isn’t new in rural Montana; a 2002 lawsuit blasted Montana's school funding system for not giving rural districts enough money to retain teachers.

Pay for beginning teachers in Montana is the lowest in the nation, and small schools typically pay less than larger districts. Factors like geographic and professional isolation play a role, and many rookie teachers feel unprepared for rural schools. Montana has a stringent process for out-of-state teachers obtaining a Montana certification.

If a school churns through inexperienced or miscertified teachers year after year, it hurts kids’ education. And school leaders have said that recruiting has gotten to “critical” levels.

The Office of Public Instruction's latest "Critical Quality Educator Shortage" report found 638 full-time vacancies, and that most were "difficult or hard to fill." Emergency authorizations for teachers working outside of their usual subject area have been on the rise, as have provisional licenses issued to teachers still completing certification requirements.

The pitch

Grabowska was joined by more than two dozen other educators to make their pitch. Topics included professional development and support, financial situations, and rural life — but at each session, small school culture kept popping into the forefront of conversations.

MSU student Erin Waldorf, who’s set to student-teach at Beartooth Elementary in Billings, attended the nearby Skyview High.

“I graduated with almost 400 students. I really don’t know a lot about rural education,” she said. A class with four kids is “just a weird concept to me.”

For small school advocates, it’s a major selling point — especially for rookie teachers with an inevitable learning curve.

“It’s easy to control five kids in a senior math class,” said Colstrip Principal Aaron Skogen, who started his teaching career in Highwood. “It’s smaller classes, you know those kids in a different way.”

That leads to more personal relationships, said North Star superintendent Bart Hawkins.

“If you like going to weddings, teach in a small school,” he said. “That’s the kind of relationships you build with the kids.”

With the small class sizes comes a more varied course load, which results in additional planning for teachers. But there’s less work on the back-end, like grading.

Student Brett Conors expressed near-shock at the idea of grading assignments for fewer than 10 students, compared to his student teaching.

“I had to grade 130 kids,” he said.

Several studies found that highlighting small class sizes and teacher involvement in school decision-making is an effective retention and recruitment strategy. But the same research found that administrators sometimes use those class sizes to justify combining grade levels or operating with fewer teachers.

MSU student Brian Murakami thought of a small, rural school as “a good starting point,” but had reservations about going into a job with an eventual exit in mind.

“Do you want to get up and leave five years later?” he said.

Conversations about class size only scratch the surface when it comes to getting more teachers in rural schools, and it was far from the only topic discussed.

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