Dutton-Brady Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Locke shows off the district's newly renovated science room, part of a school-wide improvement project paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funds. Locke said one of the goals of upgrading the building's aesthetics was to attract and retain new teachers. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

TETON COUNTY — The past few weeks of walking the halls of Choteau Elementary School and getting her new fifth-grade classroom ready for the fall semester have been somewhat surreal for Amanda Lightner. Day by day, she’s added more books to the shelves, arranged the wood-topped desks, papered the walls with daily planning charts and decorations. But she can’t shake the picture of what the room used to look like, back when she was in fourth grade.

This story also appeared in Choteau Acantha

“I’m like, ‘This should be this way because that is how it was when I was in here,’” Lightner said on a recent Thursday. “‘But this is your room and you can do what you want.’”

Amanda Lightner stacks books on the shelves of her new fifth-grade classroom at Choteau Elementary, the same classroom where she attended fourth grade as a child. According to school administrators in Teton County, one of their key strategies for combatting Montana’s teacher shortage is to find quality applicants who, like Lightner, have strong ties to the local community. Credit: Alex Sakariassen

In her four years as a Montana educator, Lightner has inched closer to what she describes as the “end goal” of her career: a return to the town, and the school, where she and her husband grew up. After a year of teaching in Gallatin Gateway, she landed an elementary job in the Greenfield School District, commuting half an hour each day from her new house two blocks from Choteau Elementary. This summer, Lightner finally heeded the routine texts from friends and the encouragement heaped on her parents and husband by community members and applied for one of four open positions at her elementary alma mater.

“People in this community, they’ve always been so welcoming and got your back,” Lightner said. “If you need anything, they would be willing to drop what they’re doing and help you out with whatever it is.”

Lightner’s story is a prime example of many dominant trends in Teton County’s public education workforce. Administrators throughout this slice of the Rocky Mountain Front report that their staffing levels are on relatively firm footing heading into the fall. Choteau Elementary has had to implement a contingency plan combining its second- and third-grade classes, but for the most part local districts have succeeded in filling more than a dozen area openings by promoting from within and courting new hires with local connections or a thirst for a small-school environment. Teton County Superintendent Brook Durocher reports that the three small schools she oversees — Bynum, Golden Ridge and Pendroy — are likewise fully staffed this fall.

“One teacher, I knew her aunt,” Durocher said of one of her newest hires. “So I called her aunt and said, ‘Can I have your niece’s number?’ And I called her and said, ‘Hey, would you like to teach? Apply!’”

Fairfield High School Principal Paul Wilson recently had to hire two new English teachers — the equivalent, he said, of the school’s entire English department. Wilson added that finding places for new educators to live remains Fairfield’s most significant challenge in teacher recruitment and retention. Credit: Alex Sakariassen

Finding that footing hasn’t been easy. Teacher recruitment and retention continues to present a considerable challenge in Montana, a reality fueled by low pay, high housing costs and limited numbers of applicants. According to the Office of Public Instruction, schools statewide had 954 open educator positions as of mid-August. Heading into the fall semester, the agency reported there were 19,595 certified educators in Montana including administrators, teachers and counselors.

Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, who heads the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee, has little doubt that Montana’s ongoing teacher shortage is a reflection of the state’s average teacher pay ranking lowest in the country. And because state education funding is largely based on student enrollment, budgets in smaller districts such as Choteau, Power and Greenfield can be particularly tight, limiting what administrators can do financially to attract and keep teachers.

“Money’s always at the root of the problem,” Salomon said.

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Interviews this month with administrators at every K-12 district in Teton County illustrate just how hard school leaders have had to fight to maintain a quality education for their students. The key recruitment hurdles listed by superintendents and principals are no different than in Montana’s largest districts. In addition to low starting salaries, housing can be a bedeviling problem when hiring new teachers. 

“The ability to hire somebody that can find housing has sometimes taken precedence over somebody who maybe looks better on paper or maybe even interviewed a little better,” said Fairfield Superintendent Dustin Gordon, who emphasized local alumni as a valuable recruitment pool. “It just holds a lot more water now than it did not too very long ago, because those are difficulties to overcome, and beginning teacher wages haven’t increased in a linear fashion with housing prices.”

Choteau Schools Superintendent Matt Genger said inflation has driven up the cost of starter homes even in small communities like Augusta, and according to Fairfield High School Principal Paul Wilson, the rental market in his district is virtually nonexistent. Wilson leans on community members, including two local real estate agents, to help identify short- and long-term options for incoming staff. 

“The ability to hire somebody that can find housing has sometimes taken precedence over somebody who maybe looks better on paper or maybe even interviewed a little better.”

Fairfield Superintendent Dustin Gordon

“Honestly,” Wilson said, “that’s probably the toughest piece for us, finding a place for them to live.”

To overcome such challenges, superintendents and principals continue to fine-tune their pitches to prospective teachers. Genger’s preferred strategy is plugging the Rocky Mountain Front itself by listing every conceivable amenity in job postings, from outdoor recreation to restaurants, shops and health clinics. In Genger’s words: “location, location, location.” At Power Public Schools, Superintendent Nichole Pieper said she’s primarily focused on promoting the school environment.

“We average eight kids per grade level,” Pieper said, speaking to an attribute that several new Teton County teachers specifically cited as a draw to the area this fall: class size.

Maintaining smaller class sizes at Choteau Elementary School was a top priority for Principal Rachel Christensen this summer as she raced to fill four open teaching positions. Christensen said the school has long prided itself on having two teachers per grade level, a level of staffing that, while costly, affords teachers the opportunity for more collaboration and greater focus on building proficiency in reading, writing and math. 

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As successful as Choteau has been so far in preserving that particular aspect of the teaching experience, Christensen recognizes that one perk alone won’t fix all of a district’s recruitment and retention issues. She argues that finding solutions to the challenges doesn’t just fall to school administrators.

“I have teachers that say, ‘We like it here because our class sizes are still small and we want to keep them small. We’ll do what we have to,’” she said. “But this is where I firmly believe it is not a school problem. It’s a community-wide problem.”

If housing tops the list of community assets critical in attracting teachers, licensed childcare services are a close second. Jordan Skulsky and Jessica Toner credited their interest in joining the Dutton-Brady Public Schools staff this fall directly to the district’s recent addition of an in-school daycare program. Both teachers have young children who will now spend their weekdays in a brightly colored, freshly outfitted childcare center just across the hall from Skulsky’s classroom door. The pair also noted that childcare rates can run well over $1,000 a month in larger cities, an expense that’s unmanageable on a teacher’s salary. In Dutton, certified district staff receive a 50% discount, penciling out to less than $300 per month. 

Incoming Dutton-Brady Elementary teachers Jordan Skulsky, left, and Jessica Toner examine a set of cards depicting hand signals their students can use to quietly request bottled water, bathroom breaks and other needs. Both cited the district’s new in-school daycare program as a primary reason they applied for job openings in Dutton this fall. Credit: Alex Sakariassen

“That daycare is what sold me, because I couldn’t afford Great Falls, even though in Great Falls, their starting teachers make a lot more than the Dutton teachers,” said Toner, who commutes 30 minutes each way from her family’s home in Great Falls. “Even with that income, it wouldn’t match up with the $1,400 childcare fees. Here it matches a little better and it’s doable.”

Dutton-Brady Superintendent Jeremy Locke said recruitment was front of mind when he pitched the childcare program to the district’s school board. The undertaking wasn’t cheap, but he explained that a combination of federal COVID-19 relief funds and nearly a quarter-million dollars in grants made the fall 2022 launch possible. Locke believes the offering, in addition to filling a community need, signals to prospective hires the kind of supportive work environment he’s tried to create.

“These are the things that we do not only to support you, but also to support your families, because we care more than just about what you can teach at this school,” Locke said. “We care about, ‘How’re your kids doing? How’s your husband? How’s your family?”

Locke also emphasized the Dutton-Brady Public School’s roughly $250,000 investment of COVID funds in a school-wide facelift — including classroom renovations, new carpeting, a paint scheme highlighting the school’s maroon and gray colors and Diamondback mascot — as a recruitment tool. English teacher Lisette Hofer echoed the sentiment, that she worked throughout the summer to clear classrooms of decades of accumulated “stuff” left behind by past teachers.

“These are the things that we do not only to support you, but also to support your families, because we care more than just about what you can teach at this school. We care about, ‘How’re your kids doing? How’s your husband? How’s your family?”

Dutton-Brady Superintendent Jeremy Locke

“When I walked in here six years ago, this school was dark and dingy and dirty and yucky,” Hofer said. “And in those six years we have brought up all of the aesthetics, everything. I love coming here because my room is bright, it’s clean, it’s how I want it.”

While state lawmakers and education leaders have increasingly promoted mentorship programs, flexible regulations and grow-your-own teacher initiatives as answers to Montana’s ongoing teacher shortage, those concepts are already deeply ingrained in Teton County schools. Some, like Fairfield and Greenfield, have relied on emergency authorizations or provisional licenses from OPI to cultivate quality teachers in their classrooms even as those teachers work to meet state-mandated certification requirements. Others, like Choteau Elementary, have laid out a path for educators like Lightner to follow home.

“It’s amazing to listen to what each school does to recruit and retain teachers,” said Montana Rural Education Association Executive Director Larry Crowder, “because they all have great ideas and they try to adapt them to what works best in their area.”

“The box has changed. Aspirations have changed. In all professions, in all jobs, it is a [job] seeker’s market right now.”

Choteau Schools Superintendent Matt Genger

And as Skulsky, Toner and other newly relocated recruits settle into their fall routines, administrators are already turning their attention to convincing them to stay — a task, not unlike recruitment, that hinges on the school environment. With Power implementing a new elementary English curriculum, Pieper plans to hold weekly meetings with teachers to help them navigate the new material, and said she’ll be demonstrating the lessons herself to allow teachers to evaluate her. At Fairfield High School, Wilson said he strives to encourage educators to channel their interests into their lesson plans, giving a science teacher the latitude to offer a course in zoology, and a family and consumer sciences teacher the ability to craft a personal finance class. As Genger in Choteau put it, school leaders have to “think outside the box.” 

“The box has changed. Aspirations have changed,” he said. “In all professions, in all jobs, it is a [job] seeker’s market right now.”

For Teton County’s public schools, the solution to their share of the state’s teacher shortage isn’t just courting a new cohort of young teachers — it’s convincing them to stay. According to some teachers, retention isn’t just a question of pay. Skulsky said she took a $12,000 pay cut to come to Dutton-Brady from her previous elementary job in Fort Benton. The word she used to describe walking into her new school — the same word used by Toner — was “welcoming.”

“Money’s great,” Skulsky said, “but it’s not the No. 1 factor.”

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...