Rural K12 districts tackle enrollment declines and teacher shortages

Facing declines in enrollment, funding and hiring pools, many rural K12 districts work to employ creative solutions to provide the necessary educational resources for students.
By: | Issue: February, 2019
January 16, 2019

Despite facing declines in enrollment, funding and hiring pools, many rural districts are working to employ creative solutions to fill gaps and provide the necessary educational resources for students.

These remote districts lack the tax bases of urban and suburban areas, leading to less funding, says Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

The No. 1 problem rural districts face is the teacher shortage, Pratt says. This is a national issue—teacher education enrollment dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute. But it is far more severe in rural areas, where educators often make less money than their urban and suburban colleagues, Pratt says.

Rural districts also suffer from higher-than-average administrator turnover, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Education study.

“The days when a superintendent or principal would stay in a position for 20 to 30 years are gone,” Pratt says. Principals in remote districts are also less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to stay at the same school the following year, and more likely to leave the profession altogether, the Department of Education study found.

Declining enrollments in some states have led remote schools to combine or close.

Creativity and collaboration in rural Colorado

Of Colorado’s 178 districts, 148 are classified as rural, says Denille LePlatt, director of rural services at the Colorado Department of Education.

“Across the board, our rural districts struggle with capacity,” she says. “Oftentimes, there just aren’t enough hands to go around for all of the work.”

Like many others, the state struggles with a small talent pool of educators, LePlatt says. “It’s not even hard-to-fill positions anymore—it’s all positions because schools are so isolated,” LePlatt says. “We’re struggling to get teachers into classrooms, and that leads to the question of how we’re going to fill our leadership positions.”

This has led to the creation of 40 dual-role administrators who are superintendents and, most often, principals, LePlatt says. “They’re pulling double duty, which is not something that everyone looks at as a favorable position,” she adds.

The state also established the Colorado Center for Rural Education at the University of Northern Colorado in 2016. The center offers incentives for people entering education prep programs; concurrent enrollment programs for high school students to earn college credits toward teaching degrees; and student teaching opportunities. It also awards grants for districts to partner with universities on “grow your own” efforts to get more students into the rural teacher pipeline.

“These challenges have caused everyone to think more creatively and collaborate a lot more with communities,” LePlatt says. Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which provide shared educational programs to schools in some states, and higher education partners in particular have stepped in to fill gaps and provide resources, she adds.

Solutions at every level

Technological advances now allow some rural communities to hire professionals who work remotely, says Pratt, of the National Rural Education Association. Schools can also create certification or internship programs to provide employees to the local workforce and attract businesses to the area, he adds.

Remote school districts can attract more teachers and administrators by offering subsidized housing, and advertising small class sizes, tightknit communities and other benefits of rural schools, Pratt says.

Administrators must also support the teachers they do have, and help them advance into leadership roles, Pratt says.

“Do everything in your power to connect what you’re doing in the classroom to local industries and jobs,” Pratt says. “That’s how you’re going to save your community.”