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Teacher drought plagues Az's rural schools

Attracting and retaining quality teachers is a problem in Arizona’s rural schools, and there seems to be no easy fix in sight.

While urban areas have no problem filling teacher slots, rural areas often have to settle for mediocre candidates, and the Arizona Department of Education seems to have done little to fix this, rural educators say.

Attracting teachers to rural areas is a multi-problem issue, said Bill Blong, the executive director of the Arizona Rural School Association, which aims to improve instruction in rural schools.

For one, it is a huge lifestyle change. In addition to living in rural areas, teachers are often paid less than those in urban areas, Blong said.

Compared with urban districts, rural schools are neglected not only in Arizona, but on a nationwide level, Blong said.

State lawmakers often apply a principle of one-size-fits-all when it comes to fixing problems in rural areas, but that just doesn’t work, he added.

The Arizona Department of Education is putting on career fairs to get the word out, but teachers just pass by the rural information tables and seek out the ones located in urban areas, said Mohave Valley School District Superintendent Whitney Crow.

“After three years of attending, we did not get one candidate,” Crow said.

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Attracting local teachers to rural districts is nearly impossible unless they are from that area, he said.

In Arizona, the recruiting focus has changed to attract teachers from the Midwest, Crow said.

The state Department of Education recognizes that the hiring of teachers into rural areas is a big problem, but no real solutions have been found.

The Arizona Learning Fellows is a new program that is trying to recruit teachers to tribal areas, and due to the similarity to rural areas, this program might be expanded if it is successful, Ducharme said.

Teacher retention also poses a big problem to rural areas, especially because these areas don’t have the resources available needed to properly support rural teachers, he said.

Not being able to attract quality teachers often forces school districts to hire under-qualified personnel, which leaves its marks on the children taught.

“If we can’t find good teachers, it negatively affects kids,” Crow said. “Good students will learn no matter what. Kids who struggle aren’t going to go anywhere if they don’t get the right teachers,” he added.

Currently, a lot of mentor teachers are starting to retire, and they are taking years of experience and knowledge with them, Blong said.

Younger teachers tend not to stay in the schools for too long because they are the first on the chopping board when budget cuts come around, he said.

This lack in consistency negatively affects the student, Blong said.

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“They are killing us out here,” Crow said.

Crow believes that financial incentives could help end the teacher drought in rural Arizona, but money allocated to education mostly goes to urban schools, Crow said.

Across the Colorado River in Laughlin, Nev., there is a rural teaching stipend, making teaching in a rural area more attractive, he said.

In Arizona there are no incentives to attract teachers to rural areas, said Ryan Ducharme, spokesman for the Department of Education.

Federal funds the state receives usually go to districts with high enrollments, such as Maricopa County, Ducharme said.

Fewer students in rural areas does not mean that there are sufficient teachers.

The student-to-teacher ratio at the Mohave County school district is one teacher per 22 students, while for Maricopa County school districts have 1 teacher per 20 students.

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