Qualified educators are in demand nationwide, but many rural school administrators face a recruiting challenge over which they have essentially no control: location.
To attract teachers, some rural districts are offering signing bonuses, housing subsidies, transportation from nearby urban areas and more. And even then, they’re having to look beyond Southern Arizona — often far beyond — for candidates.
Patagonia Public Schools and Baboquivari Unified School District, for example, offer discount-priced, district-sponsored housing. Baboquivari also offers a highly competitive salary and commuter buses for teachers. The Ajo Unified School District recruits internationally, sponsoring teachers’ visas.
“In an urban area, a younger person has more opportunities to do things outside their school,” said Don German, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association. “They have more social and cultural activities.”
Small towns also can be lonely for people used to more urban environments.
“It’s a slower and peaceful lifestyle,” said Robert Dooley, superintendent of the Ajo Unified School District. “But that’s not for everybody.”
Among teacher candidates, an unofficial indicator of an area’s remoteness is whether it has a Walmart, one rural school administrator said. If it has one nearby, it’s perceived as less rural.
The work doesn’t end when rural districts get new teachers through the door. Turnover rate in rural schools can be as high as 50 percent, administrators say.
“Our children really need people who can commit for more than two years,” said Denise Blake, superintendent of Patagonia Public Schools.
Mercy Arancon left her native Philippines in 2007, looking to learn more about different cultures.
She first went to Maryland, where she worked as a teacher for four years. When the district she worked for ran into trouble with U.S. Customs and Immigration Services for failing to comply with some of the requirements for its foreign teachers’ visas, she had to look elsewhere.
“Several of my friends knew about Ajo,” said Arancon, who is an instructional coach for the Ajo Unified School District in a town of about 3,500 people 130 miles east of Tucson.
About 40 percent of Ajo’s teachers are from foreign countries, Dooley said. Over the years, the district has employed teachers from the Philippines, Jamaica, South Africa and India.
Some of the international teachers have visas sponsored by the district. Others have experience working in other U.S. schools and pre-existing work visas or permanent residencies.
Word has spread through international teaching communities that Ajo is supportive of international teachers. That has led to more highly qualified foreign candidates applying, Dooley said.
“Just because someone is an international teacher, it doesn’t mean they are a good teacher,” he said. “But I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience.”
He has found foreign teachers to be active in the community, attending church and sporting events, as well as exceptional teachers. The best math teacher the district has ever had was Filipino, he added.
International teachers also provide something rural students don’t often get, he said.
“For a smaller district like ours, it gives the kids a much broader world experience,” he said.
Ajo also recruits from regional universities in the Midwest, where the district has had some success in attracting high-quality teachers, he said. District officials particularly look for teachers who are used to living in small towns.
Arancon, the instructional coach from the Philippines, doesn’t plan to leave Ajo any time soon.
There are challenges of being a teacher in a foreign country, including different instructional styles and content, she said. But there is a network of foreign teachers in Ajo who are there for each other. Part of her role, she added, is to help newly arrived teachers adapt.
Personally, she said, she loves the town and the small-school settings.
“It’s become personal for me and I want to see the kids succeed,” she said. “If I move, what will happen to my kids?”
Plus, she doesn’t mind that it never gets cold in Ajo. “I don’t have to worry about different layers of clothing.”
APARTMENT WITH A VIEW
When Jeff Weger opens the double doors to his apartment, he’s offered a breathtaking view of the Santa Rita mountains, which he described as the “greatest on the entire planet.”
“I’m here for the peace and quiet,” said the veteran teacher of 32 years.
His apartment, in an auxiliary building on the old Patagonia school ground, is cozy. Weger has put some personal touches on it with former students’ artwork on walls, and his wedding picture on the bedside table. Several cat figurines that remind him of his own Siamese, Coco.
For now, he has the whole complex to himself, other than a guy who shows up early in the morning to practice Tai Chi, and Ned the lizard, the resident bug-eater. Weger doesn’t mind either of them.
The Patagonia Public Schools renovated an old school building into teachers’ living quarters. The plan is to continue converting buildings on the school grounds into apartments, all offered at a discounted rate.
Patagonia, a town of about 900 people that is 60 miles south of Tucson, is a popular tourist destination with its close access to the wilderness, including the Arizona Trail. Rentals can be expensive, said Blake, Patagonia’s superintendent.
“We really can’t make more money happen,” she said. “But maybe we could lessen the cost that they experience in living in a rural area.”
Weger, a Tucson native, is not a first-time rural teacher. He has also taught on several Native American reservations and in other smaller towns, including Douglas. But he also has one foot in the metro area; he and his wife have a home in Tucson, where he lives when school is out.
He said he is a rural-minded person and that the country is where his heart belongs, but he also recognizes that a young person may not feel the same way.
For him, “it’s not about the mall,” he said. “It’s not about shopping. It’s a different mindset.”
Without the school-sponsored apartment, which costs him $475 a month, Weger said he probably would not have been able to afford to teach in Patagonia.
“I just really couldn’t afford a second house,” he said.
The district wants to create a caring environment for teachers, Blake said. Offering affordable housing is a part of appreciating teachers — and showing it.
“Knowing that people really care about you sometimes outweighs making a little bit more money,” she said. “It won’t outweigh a lot more money, but it can outweigh a few thousand dollars more.”
When Weger was first shown the teacher apartment, he said he knew he wanted to be there. To him, the help with housing meant “we appreciate you and we’re going to invest in you.”
“The greatest thing a teacher wants is appreciation for what we do,” he said.
Bus rides, COMPETITIVE pay
Holly Busse’s day starts at 3:30 a.m.
She feeds her baby and gets ready for work. By 5 a.m. she is out the door of her Sahuarita home. At 6 a.m. she and her fellow teachers are picked up by a bus in Tucson that takes them to the Baboquivari Unified School District in Sells.
The bus is equipped with wi-fi and the teachers are provided laptops. Some catch up on sleep, some read books and others grade or plan lessons, she said.
“I enjoy the bus ride,” said the first-grade teacher. “That’s when I get a big chunk of my work done.”
School is out at 3:30 p.m., and the bus out of town leaves at 3:45 p.m. On most days, Busse said she is home by 5 p.m. And because she has gotten her work done on the bus, her time at home can be spent with her family.
Nearly 60 percent of Baboquivari’s 87 teachers live outside of Sells, said Edna Morris, the district’s superintendent.
The district operates charter buses that pick up and drop teachers in Tucson and Three Points.
“We’ve had to do those things because even though we’re just 45 miles west of Tucson, driving out this far comes at a personal sacrifice,” she said.
Baboquivari also offers housing options for teachers who live in town, she said. There are 47 units and the district plans to expand. Rent ranges from $180 to $280, which includes wi-fi, water, sewer and trash fees.
The district had to take other measures to recruit highly qualified teachers, including raising pay. The starting salary at Baboquivari for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $51,000, compared to an average of about $32,000 in the Tucson area.
Baboquivari is able to invest in these measures because of federal impact aid, which helps local school districts in areas that cannot collect local taxes, including Indian reservations and federal land.
TIES TO COMMUNITY
Dooley, the Ajo superintendent, has already begun seeking out teachers for the 2016-2017 school year. Turnover in his district was about 25 percent in the last several years.
“You never relax,” he said. “You’re always recruiting.”
Nearly all districts experience issues with recruiting and retaining educators, but not all of them are able to offer incentives.
St. David Unified School District, in a lush area south of Benson, pays more for hard-to-fill positions, including math, science and special education, said Martin Goodman, the district’s superintendent. But the district cannot afford to do much more than that.
“We don’t have any other incentives other than our beautiful town and wonderful weather,” he said.
Incentives can help bring teachers to town, but the best way to keep them is to help them create ties to the community, superintendents agreed.
“I think it’s the single biggest factor in a teacher staying or leaving a community,” German, of the rural schools association, said.
That doesn’t just mean a teacher running into a parent or student at the grocery store and saying hello, he said.
Teachers need to make an effort to join community events, he said, and the community needs to treat the teachers with respect.
“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “It’s not always going to work out, but you’ve got to make that person feel welcome.”