For Rural School Districts, Filling Key Teaching Positions Can Be A Challenge

Jan 29, 2019

From Texas Standard:

When the 2019 Texas legislative session gaveled in earlier this month, leadership named fixing the state’s troubled school finance system as a top priority – maybe even giving teachers an across-the-board raise.

School districts, especially in rural Texas, are paying attention. According to the Texas Education Agency, Texas has more schools in rural areas than any other state. But when it comes to public policy, big cities can dominate the conversation.

So we’re spending all this week talking to these teachers, administrators and the advocates who support them. We’ll hear about the struggles and successes of rural schools and teachers, and what they say they need from lawmakers in Austin.

We start in Dell City, a small farming and ranching community about 90 miles east of El Paso.

A few weeks ago, Edgar Alvarez was teaching anatomy when the principal stopped by.

“I thought he was going around checking out how classes were going, until he speaks up and he says oh, we have a medical situation,” Alvarez says.

Alvarez teaches eighth grade science at Dell City ISD, along with “anatomy and physiology, physics, chemistry, biology,” he says.

He’s also the school’s medical trainer. When a kid gets injured or falls ill, he’s the one on call. So Alvarez went to the front office.

“This, I think, second grader was crying,” Alvarez says. “He has blood on his head. I’m like oh lord, what happened?”

The student bashed his head on a fence. Alvarez calmed him down, then cleaned and wrapped the wound.

“I end up getting back to class about one or two minutes before the end of class,” he says.

Small, rural districts ask a lot of teachers like Alvarez –who, lest you were concerned, does have a medical degree. In exchange, these teachers often earn substantially less than their counterparts in larger districts. The smaller the student body and tax base, the less funding for teacher salaries - and for positions like school librarian or nurse. Dell City has just 76 students, pre-k through 12th grade.

Credit Mallory Falk

Ruben Cervantes is in his first year as superintendent of Dell City ISD.

“Our student numbers are low. And the students are the ones that generate funding for our district,” Cervantes says.

He loves the sense of family here – like at a recent sports banquet, when the principal made brisket and parents brought side dishes.

“I’d seen that in the movies but I hadn’t seen that in real life,” Cervantes says.

Yet, the district has a hard time attracting and keeping teachers. Cervantes says the school loses about 40 percent of its teachers every year. Before Edgar Alvarez showed up, the district went several years without a high school science teacher. Students took science classes online.

Like Dell City, many rural districts struggle with recruitment and retention. Experts say low pay, geographic isolation, and limited housing drive teachers to larger districts.

Principal Carlos Contreras says they mostly rely on new teachers.

“Who are starting, who maybe couldn’t get a job somewhere else and this is kind of like their last resort,” Contreras says.

Most are from El Paso. Contreras says they teach in Dell City for a couple years, get experience that makes them more attractive candidates, then apply for jobs back home.

“The students are very intuitive. They see that there’s high turnover and one young lady aptly put it and very nicely, she said it prevents the rhythm from continuing,” Contreras says.

Christian Mendoza is a junior at Dell City.

“You can’t really count on anyone to stay around for long,” Mendoza says. “I understand why, because it's so far out . You want to do more than sit at home all day or ride around town and see nothing really.”

He’s into science - maybe wants to be a herpetologist. Taking online science courses didn’t cut it.

“You walked into the computer lab, sat down at your assigned seat and pretty much logged into the class and sat there and worked. It was hardly any talking, hardly any interaction,” Mendoza says.

When Alvarez arrived, “I was like wow, I finally get to learn something,” Mendoza says.

Superintendent Ruben Cervantes wants to entice more teachers, and keep them around for longer.

“So we’re calling this a studio apartment,” Cervantes says.

He points to a portable classroom with blue-gray siding, a cement ramp leading up to the door. It’s one of several buildings on campus that’s no longer in use, so the district is converting them into affordable housing for teachers.

“Our maintenance guy will be adding running water, creating a bathroom,” Cervantes says.

Beyond housing, Cervantes is applying for Dell City to become a District of Innovation, which would give him more flexibility to hire uncertified teachers.

“We can hire someone from the town that has some roots, that would stay longer,” Cervantes says.

He also thinks, specifically, the state should increase funding for rural districts, so they can raise salaries.

“Because we’re still required to meet all the state mandates with whatever number of faculty we have, we still have to meet those mandates,” Cervantes says.

Until the district can grow its own teaching force and offer more competitive pay, Cervantes worries teachers will always cycle in and out.

Like science teacher Edgar Alvarez. He likes the small class sizes here, the sense of community. But, ultimately, he wants to teach at a university. Alvarez came to the district knowing it would be a short term stint.

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