In order to achieve one of the highest teacher retention rates in the state, Blaine County administrators focus on everything from public recognition of educators to recruiting out-of-state.
As a result, Blaine County retained more than 92 percent of its teachers in 2018, according to an Idaho Education News analysis of State Department of Education school report cards.
“We try to say, ‘thank you’ and how much we appreciate them,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said.
Teacher recruitment and retention have become hot topics in Idaho. The Legislature has invested $250 million over the past five years to raising salaries via the career ladder salary law. Meanwhile, Gov. Brad Little has created a teacher pipeline subcommittee of his “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force to help address the issue.
Statewide, Idaho’s teacher retention rate has come in at about 84 percent in each of the past three years, right in line with national averages.
However, the rate varies widely among The Gem State’s districts and charters, ranging from 0 percent for 2018 in Prairie’s one-room school house to 100 percent at 10 charters or districts.
The State Department of Education defines retention as “the percentage of teachers returning from the previous school year.”
Blaine County, a district that includes the Sun Valley area, is different from many other Idaho districts because it pays the highest average wages for teachers while featuring one of the state’s highest costs of living. Quality of life, however, makes the area desirable.
In order to make it on an educator’s salary, even with Blaine’s higher wages, Holmes said district officials often partner with other local employers to help a new educator’s spouse or partner find a job as well.
“Housing is limited and it’s very expensive,” Holmes said. “It pretty much takes a two-income household.”
In order to retain its staff, Blaine administrators focus on their school culture and promoting a team-like environment where teachers are empowered to work with the rest of the staff to improve student outcomes.
“Because we’re a small enough district, if we’re working on improving algebra, every teacher in the district is part of that task force,” Holmes said.
Administrators are also reviewing data from the SDE staff engagement surveys.
“Our teachers indicate they feel like school leaders are approachable,” Holmes said. “That goes to size. I can walk through a school, stick my head in the room and I know the teacher by name.”
While Holmes said she’s pleased with the district’s retention rates, she pointed out many Blaine teachers are nearing retirement, which prompted the district to develop a recruitment plan.
They’ve experimented with tuition assistance or reimbursement, particularly to lure elementary certified teachers who also speak Spanish and could work within Blaine’s dual-immersion program.
Part of the recruitment plan involves working within the area to grow their own talent.
But the other part involves active recruiting each spring, often traveling out-of-state to job fairs.
“We need Spanish speaking teachers but going to job fairs in Texas is not successful for us,” Holmes said. “But we’ve learned going to job fairs in Oregon and Montana are successful for us because we’re able to pay more and we offer a similar lifestyle.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Bruneau-Grandview struggled with retention over the past five years, Superintendent Ryan Cantrell told the “Our Kids Idaho’s Future” Task Force earlier this month.
For 2018, the SDE calculated Bruneau’s retention rate at 68 percent, well below the state average of 84 percent.
Cantrell said his district isn’t alone. Many rural districts struggle to recruit and retain teachers.
Off the top of his head, Cantrell said he could only think of four teachers who have been with the district for more than five years.
Housing is a factor.
Finding young teachers from outside the district who are willing to move to the district and put down roots are challenges.
And Bruneau-Grandview’s 10-year history of underachieving was a challenge.
“We had four math teachers in four years,” Cantrell said. “We have terrible time hanging on to our good teachers because we’re often a stepping stone for other districts. When you have four teachers in four years, it’s a significant challenge to make significant gains academically.”
At the same time Cantrell and the team are working to turn things around academically, they are looking to increase retention.
They measure staff morale each year now.
And they are working to change the school climate and culture, which Cantrell believes will help them improve academically and with retention.
“It’s a constant battle to not lose good teachers,” Cantrell said. “It’s hard to find housing and it’s at least an hour drive from almost everywhere but Mountain Home.”
The state’s second-largest district posted a retention rate of 87.1 percent a year ago, beating the state average of 84.3 percent.
Although some level of turnover in a district that large is inevitable, Human Resources Director Nick Smith said, the district is a destination for teachers looking to settling into a career.
The average age of a new hire is 36-37, not 23-34. And the average age for a certified employee is about 50.
“We more likely hire veteran teachers than folks right out of school,” Smith said. “That person we’re hiring isn’t trying to decide if they want to be a teacher or not. They’re committed to be an educator; they’re just looking for an opportunity in a new district at that point.”
One byproduct of Boise’s status as a destination district is that it changes the way the district hires. Rather than posting individual jobs, the district uses pool-based hiring where it may attract 300-500 applicants for general elementary teaching positions without a specific opening in mind. Then, when a principal has an opening, the district has a large pool of screened applicants for that principal to pick from.
Occasionally, district officials must post specific openings, such as a hard-to-fill career-technical or special-education position. But, generally, there are large pools of candidates in place before specific openings are even discussed.
“When you talk about recruitment in the Boise School District, I have no doubt it looks different than recruitment in other districts,” Smith said.
Boise is able to offer a more competitive salary and benefits package than many other Western Idaho districts. Offering a living salary is part of the appeal. But Smith said the support the district offers its teaching staff is even more valuable.
The district offers both new-to-the profession and new-to-the-district introduction plans. Administrators focus on matching new teachers with veteran educators for rich mentoring programs.
And Boise promotes a series of professional development training programs to help educators learn new skills and keep existing ones sharp.
“Part of the reason those folks seek out the Boise School District after teaching for 12-20 years is because of the things we are able to do for our employees.”
Stephanie Myers, president of the Boise Education Association, said the relationship between the district and its teachers is an important reason why many educators are happy and stay.
“It doesn’t hurt that our association has a really positive collaboration with the district,” Myers said. “They don’t feel like they are out there floundering alone.”
Myers particularly values the mentoring programs and the ability to approach other educators or administrators with problems.
“Teachers who feel supported stick around,” Myers said. “A lot of people point to the salary, but I really think it’s bigger than that. It’s about a culture of appreciating what teachers do every single day that starts at the very top and goes all way through the district.”
Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed research to this report.