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New UND office addresses teacher shortages across North Dakota

Understaffed rural schools, declining student teacher enrollment are major contributory factors

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Cindy Juntunen, dean of UND's College of Education and Human Development
UND
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GRAND FORKS — With mounting teacher shortages present across the state, UND’s Office of Teacher Recruitment and Retention has a full agenda on its plate. The newly created department seeks to identify school districts most in need of support, and petition the state government to fund programs that lessen the burden on new teachers entering the profession.

Program director Ashley Smalley, a UND alumna and former West Fargo middle school teacher, praised university administrators’ efforts in developing the program.

“UND has used strategic investment in developing this program,” Smalley said. “I’m really excited for the outreach opportunities that will follow.”

Smalley says through her initial outreach efforts, it's evident the factors contributing to teacher shortages are manifold.

“We need to put more money into the education system altogether,” said Smalley. “The majority of student teachers are not paid during their mandatory semester-long internship. This means 16 weeks of unpaid, full-time work, with an additional 10 weeks required during the summer for those pursuing early childhood education.”

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Rural school districts are having an especially difficult time recruiting student teachers. Smalley said Alexander Public Schools, serving a city of just over 300, recently purchased seven homes in the community as an incentive to attract student teachers.

Cindy Juntunen, dean of UND’s college of education and human development, cited declining enrollment in the college’s student teacher program as a concerning trend.

“We have seen declining numbers compared to four or five years ago,” Juntunen said. “Back then, we would have approximately 160 student teachers graduate from our program. Last year, the number was 113.”

The newly created department of Teacher Recruitment and Retention partners with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction to obtain data and advocate for state-level solutions on the issue of teacher shortages. The DPI recently commissioned a study breaking down critical teacher shortages by grade level and subject, along with analysis on the efficacy of teacher retention programs.

The department’s report details the number of both unfilled and “irregularly filled positions” throughout the state. Irregularly filled denotes teachers who are either teaching under emergency certification, provisionally licensed or credentialed or teaching in a subject other than their subject of training.

For the academic year of 2021-22, North Dakota had 167 unfilled teaching positions, along with 330 teaching in an irregular capacity. The shortage of properly credentialed teachers was especially pronounced in five “critical need” areas — K-12 special education, career and technical education for grades 9-12, library-media specialists, guidance counselors and science teachers for grades 9-12.

All of these disciplines have a combined percentage of unfilled and irregularly filled positions above 6%, with library-media specialists the most understaffed at 8.9%.

Joe Kolosky, director of the DPI’s office of school approval and opportunity, cited unique degree requirements for special education instructors, new state legislation mandating specific student to counselor ratios, and hiring competition from the private sector as contributing factors to shortages in the aforementioned subjects.

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“Special education teachers typically require a master’s degree to teach, which is limiting our ability to recruit,” Kolosky said. “Additionally, the state recently passed a law requiring any school with over 300 students to have a full-time guidance counselor, increasing the number of positions we have to fill.”

“In terms of recruiting career technical education instructors, you can make a lot more as a welder than as a high school teacher,” said Kolosky. "We're seeing an increase in retirees filling these vacancies, and then becoming certified to teach."

In an effort to boost teacher retention, the DPI employs the “teacher shortage loan forgiveness program." This program has provided loan repayments of $2,012,110, to 269 teachers since its inception, targeting those working in rural communities or a field facing shortages.

According to data compiled by the DPI, the program’s efficacy is most pronounced amongst teachers with more than 20 years of experience. Kolosky stated teachers with this many years experience have a vested interest in staying with the profession.

“They’ve established themselves as teachers, probably have a lot saved up for retirement and want to pay off their loans,” said Kolosky.

Despite lower retention rates under the program for beginning teachers, Kolosky says the DPI is working toward creating a mentorship program to guide teachers through their first years in the classroom.

“Typically, if a teacher gets over that first four or five year hump, they have a higher chance of staying in the profession,” said Kolosky. “In an ideal world, we want a mentorship program that guides new teachers through all of their first five years, but we will take what we can get.”

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