Reservation schools struggle to recruit teachers

MISSION, S.D. - School districts on South Dakota's reservations face a challenge trying to recruit teachers to fill vacant positions each year.

It is a longstanding issue for the Todd County School District which ranked lowest this year in its proposed salary for first-year teachers - in a state that falls at the bottom for teacher salaries - the American Federation of Teachers reports.

The teacher shortage spans more than four decades, in part because of its rural setting and low salary levels. With the school year well into it third quarter, the district still hasn't filled eight teaching positions.

"The teacher shortage hit us hard, and it's only going to get worse," said Todd County School Superintendent Dr. Richard Bordeaux.

Neighboring Tripp County and Mellette district have higher wage scales. Tripp County proposed a salary of $32,408 and Mellette County proposed a salary of $29,319 for first-year teachers. The Tripp board recently voted to increase the teacher pay scale.

Other districts in the state offer higher salaries for first-year teachers. Union County is at the top with $37,500. Counties with urban populations ranged between $34,000 to $36,000 this year for beginning teachers and cities such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City paid well above levels offered by many tribal schools. Sioux Falls paid its first-year teachers $36,608 and Rapid City proposed a first-year salary of $34,159.

In a 2000 survey, South Dakota school districts reported that 62 administrators and 953 teachers left their positions. Retirement was a major factor for 22 percent of the teachers and 36 percent of the administrators.

Twenty-one percent of the teachers gave leaving their profession or taking a teaching job in another state as their reason. Twenty-two percent of the administrators gave the same reason. Only 25 percent of the teachers and 23 percent of the administrators, who left their positions at the end of the last school year, are in education in South Dakota this year.

Money and lack of respect were the major reasons teachers and administrators gave for leaving. Turnover rates for teachers varied. Nearly 50 percent of the districts reported turnover rates of 10 percent or less. Another 33 percent reported between 10 and 20 percent. Many smaller schools reported difficulty filling certified teacher positions.

School districts met the problem in various ways: cut programs - frequently fine arts and counseling; increased class size; hired non-certified personnel, or hired teachers outside of their area of certification. The state report showed 1,073 vacancies as of Aug.1.

Shannon County Superintendent Margo Heinert said her district faces challenges similar to those in Todd County because of its rural location. It filled its last teacher vacancy at Christmas.

"We have experienced a shortage in special education teachers and certified PE (physical education) teachers," she said.

"One of the ways we recruit staff is to work with the area colleges and offer paid internships for future teachers in hopes that they will want to teach for us after their graduation. We also have three Title VII bilingual programs that have teacher trainees working in the classrooms as aides part-time while attending Oglala Lakota College on a part-time basis. Upon graduation, we are able to maintain most of these staff members and hire them as full-time teachers," Heinert said.

Shannon County is addressing the issue by encouraging its staff members to stay by mentoring professionals.

"Our base salary is the second highest in the state at $25,200 for 1999-2000 and $26, 200 for 2000-01. Our salary range is based on experience and credit hours. The top salary is $42,700 for a master's degree plus 18 hours and 22 years of experience," she said.

"The average teacher salary for this year is $39,147 and we have 114 certified teachers."

The districts largely focused efforts on advertising locally and in trade publications, but when necessary they start looking regionally to fill the vacancies.

Heinert said her district runs ads in local papers at the beginning of the year, posts job vacancies in all of the post offices, community centers, the South Dakota Placement Bureau along with running advertisements on KILI.

"We also attend the regional and state job fairs and work closely with the universities in our area,"

Phil Severson, superintendent of the Lower Brule School District, said the salary for a beginning teacher is about $23,000.

"We are short one special education teacher and had to use a two-year person as elementary teacher rather than a four-year certified person. Our high school science teacher is not certified but working on it."

At the Tiospa Zina tribal school in Agency Village, Superintendent Roger Bordeaux said the school struggles with filling vacancies in key areas such as special education, science and math.

"We have filled three teacher positions this year with either long-term substitutes or teachers with authorities to act," Bordeaux said.

"Our teacher base is $ 23,000 and $ 25,000 for someone with a master's degree (180 contract days). We seek teachers within the five-state area and then expand."

To attract more candidates to the teacher pool, the state Legislature is considering a measure that would allow people holding a four-year degree and 10 years of work experience to take a position as a teacher to fill vacancies.

Meanwhile Nebraska reservation schools face similar issues, but the challenge is more in finding substitute teachers.

Officials at the Walthill Public School District said finding experienced teachers and an adequate number of substitute teachers to take over the classrooms when teachers are away is a challenge. The turnover rate at Walthill is 16 percent.