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Career, tech ed struggle with teacher shortages

The flood of new teachers into Grand Forks Public Schools comes during a time when North Dakota has suffered from teacher shortages statewide. Career and technical education programs have experienced the largest deficits, and Grand Forks Public Schools has felt the crunch, too.

Eric Ripley, the district's career and technical education director, attributes the shortages to both a shrinking number of schools offering training in specialized areas and not enough encouragement for young students to go into teaching themselves. North Dakota State University is the only university in the state to offer a teacher prep program for career and technical education, he said.

That shortage of teaching candidates directly contrasts with the value of the programs, Ripley said. The range of career and technical classes includes everything from cooking to business and engineering classes, he said, and students benefit from working with their hands and in teams.

"Students are choosing to take these courses because it's coursework that lines up with their interests, with their career pathways that they are interested in pursuing," Ripley said. "The one thing that we usually never hear from students is, 'Why do I need to learn this?'"

The statewide teacher shortages are so severe that some retirees have returned to work part time to fill the gaps. According to data collected by The Teachers' Fund for Retirement, 325 retirees were working at the start of the 2016 school year, the largest number since at least 2007.

Fortunately, Ripley believes the trends affecting the career and technical education programs across North Dakota are reversible. Students sometimes have opportunities to take career and technical education courses online if they go to school in districts that don't offer the programs. The state also uses the student organization FFA to encourage students to become agricultural education teachers.

"We're trying to do a better job of encouraging teaching as a viable and valuable profession for our youth," Ripley said.