Talina Schwab and her students

Primary school teacher Talina Schwab asks her students to tell her what month it is before they start their lessons at Deer Creek School on Sept. 7. Deer Creek, located outside Glendive, struggled to fill its teaching positions this year. 

BRONTE WITTPENN, Billings Gazette

BILLINGS -- It can be tough to place student teachers in rural schools. The trainees often struggle to find housing and can be daunted by rural isolation. With fewer student teachers, rural schools miss out on a major source of employees.

A Montana education advocacy group and the Montana University System hope a new scholarship program can draw more people into small towns that typically struggle to hire teachers. The Montana Rural Education Association will offer about 20 $1,000 scholarships to college students to student teach in schools with projected teacher shortages, funded from MREA school membership fees.

Rural schools in Montana have had difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers for years, but as talk of a national teacher shortage ramps up, rural administrators have said their schools are reaching crisis levels.

One way to recruit more teachers to rural schools is simply exposure; student teaching gives potential employees a taste of small-school teaching and small-town life. For future educators with family or friends who can find room in the inn for a few months, it can be a convenient arrangement.

If not, things like lack of housing, lifestyle unfamiliarity and college-town roots can deter students from taking a several-month hiatus in a new town.

“We do place a fair amount of students in rural schools,” said Montana State University Billings assistant professor and clinical practice coordinator Kathy Holt. “(But) we have difficulty with them unless they have some kind of connection there.”

Across Montana, about three-quarters of 559 student teachers from Montana universities were placed in urban districts or small districts near urban areas last school year.

Five counties in Montana account for more than half the students in the state despite having a fraction of the schools, but student teaching figures are still skewed toward urban areas. Small, rural schools also often require more staff for fewer students, as class sizes are smaller.

Students who do train in rural schools often have the option to stay, Holt said.

“Most of the time, they get great experiences and can get a job,” she said. But low salaries — beginning teacher pay in Montana is lower than any other state, and rural districts typically pay less than bigger districts — can deter job seekers.

No one expects an extra 20 student teaching slots in rural schools to be a magic bullet. Teacher shortage solutions, from alternative certification to school-owned housing, resemble bricks in a wall: each of them help, but none fixes things on their own.

“There has been considerable work done recently around the state to explore a wide variety of possibilities to assist in addressing the teacher shortage being faced by all schools across the state,” said MREA executive director Dennis Parman in a news release. “The Rural Educator Fellows Program is just one of several initiatives being moved forward and MREA wanted to be able to directly help the rural schools it serves.”

The scholarships will be offered for a pilot year beginning in the fall 2017. The program was created, in part, with recommendations from the Montana University System Rural Educator Taskforce, a group of educational experts aiming to find teacher shortage solutions for rural schools.

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