Superintendent Steve Holen isn't surprised by the teacher shortage anymore.

For the past four years, his district has struggled to hire about 20 new teachers a year. He's grown used to it, he said.

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"It's been a challenge," he said. "The applicant base is getting smaller. You try to get creative and expand where you advertise, because what you used to do doesn't work anymore."

He would know. His once-small district of 535 students in Watford City, N.D., has more than doubled in recent years, mostly from the population growth with the oil boom. He expects 225 new students this fall.

With fewer teacher candidates applying, he started recruiting nationwide. Right now, 30 to 40 percent of district teachers are from different states, he said.

Teacher shortages in North Dakota aren't new, but they're growing to a near-emergency level, school and state education officials say. State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler announced Wednesday an 11-member task force will respond to it "with urgency."

Exacerbating the problem is the state's growing population, which adds to the need for more teachers. State data show student enrollment grew from 93,715 in 2009 to 104,278 in 2014, equal to 10,563 more students or an 11 percent increase. The turnaround is significant after more than a decade of decline.

While the number of schools has remained the same in recent years-372 statewide-at least five districts, including Grand Forks, West Fargo and Watford City, are building new ones.

Since mid-April, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction has fielded numerous calls from superintendents asking for advice and emergency teacher certification to offset the lack of applicants, Baesler said.

"Every single area of teaching is now a critical shortage area," she said.

This is an unprecedented time in state history, some graduates are being told-teachers can now choose where they want to work. But fewer want the job.

North Dakota is not alone. Several states are reporting shortages while fewer high school students are interested in the profession. From 2010 to 2014, the number of ACT-tested graduates interested in teaching decreased by more than 16 percent nationwide, according to a recent ACT report.

Unlike years past, low pay is no longer one of the job's major deterrents. Increased training, new Common Core state standards and more students with complicated health issues also discourage interest in the profession, some school and education officials said.

Smaller districts, fewer candidates

Luke Schaefer refers to the teaching shortage as "an epidemic."

Seven years ago, one small district in central North Dakota drew 50 applicants for one job. This year, it received only 12 applicants for 10 jobs, he said.

"I have six schools right now that are looking for someone to teach construction or vocational agriculture," said Schaefer, director of the Mid-Dakota Education Cooperative in Minot. "There's no one out there."

Additional extracurricular work, varied hiring times and school boards barring teachers from breaking contracts also contribute, some said.

Smaller districts struggle more than larger ones to attract teachers. Younger teachers tend to be drawn to bigger cities by higher starting salaries, better benefits and a more active social life, and many stay there, superintendents said.

Grand Forks Public Schools historically has received a steady number of applicants, according to Human Resources Manager Tracy Abentroth. An elementary teacher position drew 61 applicants in 2014 and drew 67 in 2015.

But at a small district in Inkster, N.D., one recent hire could be filled only by alternative certification, which allowed the person to teach while earning credit toward a license, Superintendent Roger Abbe said.

Right now, the district is trying to hire an elementary teacher. Once in constant supply, those positions are now hard to find, he and other superintendents said.

"If this option we're exploring now doesn't work out, I'm not sure what we're going to do," he said.

Population growth-especially in central and western North Dakota-adds to the issue. The state led the nation last year with the fastest-growing population, increasing by 15,625 people since 2013 to a total 739,482, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Preliminary federal data released earlier this month also showed North Dakota had the fourth-highest birth rate-15.4 percent, based on total births per 1,000 total population-in the nation, including the District of Columbia. The state reported 11,352 births in 2014, up 761 from the previous year, according to the state Department of Health Division of Vital Records.

That's increased from its ranking of 15th-highest in 2011, said Kevin Iverson, manager at the state Department of Commerce's Census Office. He attributes the growth to two things.

"A larger and larger segment of the population is at the primary childbearing age-20 to 34-and the second is the economy," he said. "More people are comfortable having children."

Bismarck Public Schools, the largest district in the state, has opened two elementary schools in recent years. A new high school will open this fall.

The nationwide decline in teacher candidates paired with growing student enrollment has developed "a bit of a perfect storm," though Bismarck hasn't struggled much with hiring, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

Legislators acknowledged this by increasing per-pupil funding by $165 million to nearly $2 billion for 2015-17. Districts with fast-growing student bodies also have access to an additional $1.2 million in rapid-growth grants-a total $14.8 million-and easier qualifications to get the funding. Rapid-growth grants provide less than half of standard per-pupil amounts.

In the past two years, districts in West Fargo, Watford City, Williston, Dickinson and Tioga received the largest amounts.

Fewer grads

The U.S. Department of Education designated all high school content areas in North Dakota as shortage areas since about 2000.

Math, science, technical, agriculture and foreign language content areas maintain the deepest shortages, educators said.

To alleviate the problem, the state task force committee will develop short- and long-term steps schools can take to get more teachers in the classroom, Baesler said.

In recent years, the state Education Standards and Practice Board also has tried to ease some rules. It's allowed teachers to work in the classroom while preparing for the licensure exam, dropped some requirements for English language learner teachers and provided a shortcut for teachers to teach new content areas, among other changes.

But the number of state students enrolling into education programs continues to decline, said Janet Welk, executive director for ESPB.

"We (once) had around 750 to 800 going into educator preparation," she said. "Now, it's down to 550 to 600."

Whether the trend is occurring at the state's largest universities is not clear. Student enrollment in Education and Human Development programs at UND was tracked only freshman year, and data was not distinguished by major. Retention rates hovered near 77 percent in recent years then grew to 84 percent in 2013. No more than 100 students were enrolled in the programs each year.

At North Dakota State University in Fargo, 471 students were enrolled in education-related programs in fall 2010, and 346 were enrolled in spring 2015, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis.

Data from both universities included new, continuing and soon-to-be graduates.

There's some sign of turnaround. At some of the state's teaching colleges-notably Minot State University and Mayville State University-officials have seen an uptick in enrollees.

Andi Dulski-Bucholz, division chair of Mayville's Education and Psychology Department, said the number of students declaring education majors has increased 33 percent since 2007. The university's strong distance program, a new special education program and targeted student recruitment may have contributed to the 314 students pursuing education majors last year, she said.

"We're really looking at trends to evaluate where we're marketing, not only locally and regionally, but also nationwide," she said.

Erik Kana, chair of teacher education at Minot State, said he's observed a recent increase in education majors, though the university has maintained steady enrollment for several years now. Most graduates apply to Minot Public Schools or surrounding districts, he said.

Education officials describe the current climate of teacher shortages and industry challenges as a heartbreaking one.

Schaefer, a former teacher and principal, said he's heard some teachers say they love their jobs, but they'd never suggest their children pursue the career.

"Teaching is the toughest job that you'll ever love," he said. "If we could support education financially in the same way we support our prisons, I think life would be pretty good."