Eagle County Schools sees significant jump in number of educator applicants
Amid a push to hire for next year, the district saw a 206% increase in the number of certified applicants in February
All year, Eagle County School District has been preparing for the existing and ever-growing national teacher shortages. Even still, the district experienced a sharp increase in educators applying to its open positions early this year.
The ongoing teacher shortage and increased educator burnout is something all school districts across the country are facing. In Colorado, however, these challenges are exacerbated by lackluster education funding, meaning that the local district has had to seek out unique and creative measures to recruit and retain educators.
The state of things
A report last fall from the Colorado Education Association found that 67% of the association members surveyed in October were considering leaving the profession in the near future. This is a 27% increase from the previous year. The report also cited high rates of educator burnout, where more than half said the school year was significantly or somewhat worse than last year.
In June 2021, the National Education Association reported similar statistics, with 32% of its members stating the pandemic caused them to leave the profession earlier than anticipated, and 54% reporting there was a very likely or somewhat likely chance they would leave the profession in the next two years. 84% reported that teaching was more stressful that prior to the pandemic.
Up against this rising challenge, Eagle County Schools has been seeking creative ways to better recruit and retain this year, including a salary raise for its certified employees implemented at the start of 2022.
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Still, tensions remain as the teacher’s union continues to push for a $50,000 base salary — referencing a crisis on the horizon for education.
“We see a crisis on the horizon with the potential for a constant turnover in staff, and an inability to attract new highly qualified teachers and staff to our district. Students will be adversely affected if we are unable to retain and attract highly qualified teachers,” said Karen Kolibaba, speaking at a February school board meeting.
Further improvements to salary and benefits are expected to come as negotiations continue between the district and local teacher’s union. This year, the group is reviewing the district’s collective bargaining agreement, which details working conditions for educators. The next negotiation’s meeting is on March 29.
Amid these challenges and the district’s attempts to stand out among other school districts, Eagle County Schools saw a recent hike in its number of applicants.
According to a report presented to the Board of Education on Wednesday, March 9, the district saw a significant increase in the number of qualified applicants it received from Feb. 1 to March 1, 2022. This year, the district received 184 certified applicants, 124 more than the 60 it received in the same month in 2021, 131 more than the 53 it received in 2020 and 148 more than the 36 in 2019.
Superintendent Philip Qualman cited a few possible explanations for what he called a “big jump.” This includes several changes in the organization, such as the district’s chief financial officer advancing the budget process so that full-time staffing allocations were known by principals sooner, recruiting efforts and ongoing human resources work.
“A lot of people are working hard to get those positions out early so that we get a jump on all the other districts because we’ve got to be competitive in this process moving into this teacher shortage situation,” Qualman said.
Anne Heckman, Eagle County Schools’ director of educator quality, wrote in an email to the Vail Daily that her theory is that “a lot of teachers are considering whether to leave education altogether or try another district to see if it provides them with a more satisfying work experience.”
That, and the district has experienced an influx of international teachers applying in the district, she added. Of the 184 applicants received this February, the majority of applicants came from Colorado and from outside the U.S., with 60 from each location.
According to Heckman, this is “not a new strategy, it’s our new reality.”
“Other countries are producing more teachers than the U.S.,” Heckman wrote.
The district initially started recruiting internationally when it was pushing to have all its schools become dual language schools, Heckman said. And while this is no longer a district-wide initiative, it is continuing to take advantage of this pool of applicants.
However, as these educators come to the district with J-1 visas, it’s not a long-term solution to recruiting challenges, Heckman said.
“Teachers who come to us on a J-1 visa can only stay for three years, so this sets us up for perpetual turnover, which is far from ideal,” Heckman said. “However, getting a quality teacher from another country, even if only for three years, is better than no teacher at all.”
For the current school year, out of 80 educators the district hired, 25 were international hires with J-1 visas. The remainder of the hired educators included 15 from traditional teacher preparation programs, 15 teachers with previous teaching experience in Eagle County or other districts and 25 with alternative licensures.
Much of the district’s hiring — outside of filling vacancies or new positions throughout the year — is done right now. Heckman wrote that for the past few years, the district has prioritized hiring in February through May.
This year, as Qualman alluded to, there was a push for principals to be able to send their staffing allocations and needs in by mid-February so that positions were posted earlier. This, Heckman said, was done in an effort to be more competitive with other districts’ hiring as more postings were published earlier.
Each year, the Colorado Department of Education compiles data on the school district’s turnover rates. Over the past nine school years, Eagle County School has averaged a 15.02% turnover rate, hitting 15.1% last school year. The department will have the projected turnover rate for this school year sometime next month. Still, Heckman said the district appears “to be on par with prior years.”
Historically, Heckman added that the average number of years for employment for teachers in Eagle County Schools has been six years.
Even as the district sees an increase in applicants, it has plans for increasing its recruiting efforts into the future. This includes attending job fairs, in Colorado as well as virtual job fairs in other states; reaching out directly to prior students and alumni to encourage applications; and hosting an “Educator Invitational” in Eagle County in April.
Additionally, the district has been working to strengthen pathways to teaching in Eagle County. This includes partnering with high school future educators programs with CareerX, YouthPower365, TEACH Colorado; with higher education and four-year teacher preparation programs; and with alterative licensure programs including Colorado Mountain College.
“We have a shortage and need more teachers. Moving to our valley is expensive and many offers we extend are rejected because the applicant cannot find affordable housing or cannot justify making ends meet with our cost of living,” Heckman said. “Creating pathways for people who are already established in the community is logical.”
Not only is it focusing on hiring, but the district is also “working creatively with principals to figure out how to support our teachers to keep them,” Heckman said.
Some examples of these creative solutions include “using our teacher leader model to allow them to grow professionally, expanding our ‘International Ambassador Program’ to all new hires, looking to provide college credits for the professional learning we offer in the district so teachers can move (up) on the pay scale, and so much more,” she said.
Plus, for new teachers the district has implemented and is expanding a number of new educator supports for the onboarding process.
Still, facing strained resources such as lackluster statewide funding, the need for additional employee housing and, most of all, time to plan and build efforts — the district will have to continue expanding and getting creative with its efforts in order to recruit and retain educators amid national and local teaching shortages.