Rural schools work harder to recruit teachers in tight market

Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When administrators with the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Southwest Alaska try to woo prospective teachers, they emphasize the intangibles -- the spare beauty of the landscape and the opportunity to live among people of another culture.

''It used to be people would come for monetary reasons, but that's not the case any more,'' said Gary Baldwin, assistant superintendent for personnel and student services for the district. ''What you do is try to sell what you have.''

Gone are the days when Alaska's rural school districts could attract teachers with some of the highest salaries in the nation. A decade ago, school administrators didn't need to recruit and had their pick of qualified applicants.

''There was a time when I was hiring a third as many teachers and had five times as many candidates to choose from,'' Baldwin said. When the Lower Kuskokwim district began the new school year, five positions remained unfilled.

The shift is due to a shortage of teachers nationwide and rising teacher salaries in the Lower 48. Alaska teacher salary increases have lagged far behind those elsewhere in the country during the past decade.

Alaska ranks 49th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in teacher salary increases from 1989 to 1999, with a 15 percent increase during the decade, according to the National Education Association. By contrast, New Hampshire led the nation with a nearly 65 percent increase during the same period.

When adjusted for inflation, Alaska teacher salaries actually declined nearly 14 percent, NEA-Alaska President Rich Kronberg said.

''Instructional staff in Alaska has lost one seventh of their earning power over the last decade, he said.

The state's average teacher salary last year was $48,275, the sixth-highest in the nation. But when that salary is adjusted to account for Alaska's higher cost of living, the state's ranking slips to 20th, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

The situation has forced rural school administrators to work harder to recruit and keep qualified teachers and to emphasize the non-monetary rewards of working in Bush Alaska.

''Alaska still has the lure of an adventure for the outdoors type,'' said Jim Hickerson, executive director of personnel and administration for the Bering Strait School District in western Alaska.

Hickerson tries to sell prospective hires on the district's small class size and active community involvement in its 15 schools, which are spread over a 50,000-square-mile area.

In addition, the Bering Strait district now works year-round to recruit teachers. It has hired retired administrators, now living in the Lower 48, to recruit and interview teacher candidates at job fairs and universities. The district also posts job openings on the Internet and takes applications online.

''I think we're going to find in Alaska that we can't wait until April or May to fill our vacancies any more,'' Hickerson said.

One of the biggest obstacles rural districts have in attracting and retaining teachers is a lack of adequate housing in small villages.

''We do provide subsidized housing for our staff. Some don't have running water and flush toilets. When I first started in the district that was the norm. Now only a handful are not plumbed,'' Hickerson said.

The housing shortage complicates the hiring process.

Baldwin needs to hire a math teacher for one of the villages in the Lower Kuskokwim district. The only housing available is a two-bedroom home that would have to be shared with a single, male teacher.

''There were several math teachers with families and female math teachers, but none took the job,'' Baldwin said. ''It really makes it much more difficult to hire.''

Eric Lowry, 30, a second-year teacher in the Bering Strait village of Wales, says many of his college classmates received signing bonuses and moving expenses when they took teaching jobs in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Lowry says he took the job in Wales because he was looking for a challenge.

''I've learned a lot about myself and seen things most people never see,'' said Lowry, who helped haul a bowhead whale from the sea ice during the spring subsistence hunt.

''It's breathtaking to watch the ocean freeze. One day the waves are crashing against the shore and the next you can walk a mile out.''

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