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Alyssa Steiner, a third-year Advancement Via Individual Determination teacher, talks to her eighth-grade students on the first day of class this fall.

Fewer emergency teacher certifications were issued in areas of teacher shortages for the 2017-18 school year, according to preliminary data from the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board.

There were 25 alternate access licenses — provided through an emergency measure which allows people without a teacher license to teach for one year — distributed compared to 83 during the past school year.

"We don't know the why yet; we just know the number," said Rebecca Pitkin, executive director of the ESPB.

The why may be difficult to discern, but it could have to do with a new state law that increased teacher flexibility across the state, coupled with federal legislation that took place this school year that loosens federal regulations on teacher licensing.

A national response

Across the U.S., states are responding to shortages by enacting legislation and focusing on recruiting teachers by devoting funds to teacher loan forgiveness programs. North Dakota’s new law, House Bill 1098, drafted at the request of the ESPB, expanded the grade ranges for elementary and secondary licensure.

Elementary licensure was expanded from grades 1 to 6 to grades 1 to 8, and secondary licensure now includes grades 5 to 12, as opposed to grades 7 to 12. An emergency clause was added to the legislation so that it went into effect right after Gov. Doug Burgum signed it in the spring.

The law allows current teachers to fill in gaps in their districts, Pitkin said.

This past fall, the ESPB sent a statewide survey to principals, superintendents, school board members and teachers, asking them what they think would help keep teachers in their classrooms.

“Well, we knew what they wanted. They wanted increased flexibility,” Pitkin said.

The licensure expansion appears to be paying off, though additional research needs to be conducted.

"(The data) is preliminary; we're trying to figure out why. Is there really less of a shortage, or did our new law flexibility enable some of those positions to be filled? And we don't know," said Pitkin, adding the ESPB will likely send another survey to districts to find out.

At the end of the month, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction will compile data it collects annually on unfilled teaching positions. Pitkin said both groups will then compare their data.

In North Dakota, all content areas are deemed in "critical shortage" for this school year, a declaration that the ESPB made in April.

Helping rural schools

Pitkin said alternate access licenses are beneficial to small school districts with openings.

In Beach, Superintendent David Wegner said an agricultural teacher position was filled with the help of an alternate access license. Several years ago, the agricultural teacher retired, and the district struggled to get any applications. Other area schools had openings for the same position, as well, he said.

Instead, Wegner said they recruited a woman in town who had studied agriculture in college, but did not have a degree in education.

"For us, this was huge," he said. "We were going on our second year where we still didn't have an application that came through, which, unfortunately, for rural America ... we're seeing more and more of that where we're just hoping that we get one or two applicants for any position that comes along."

Most of these licenses are used in rural areas, Pitkin said. This fall, 75 percent of the alternate access licenses were issued in schools with fewer than 1,000 students, though larger districts, such as Bismarck and Fargo, also requested these licenses.

Closing the gap

Some states have identified ways to close teacher gaps, including offering scholarships to prospective teachers and offering loan forgiveness for educators who work in rural and low-income communities.

During the 2017-18 session, lawmakers appropriated $2.1 million to a teacher shortage loan forgiveness program, which is co-administered by the North Dakota University System and the state Department of Public Instruction.

The program previously set the maximum lifetime amount at $5,000 for qualifying teachers. New legislation allows the amounts to vary from $3,000 to $6,500 for a maximum of four years.

Bismarck Public Schools is planning to establish its own tactic of combating the teacher shortage. Next school year, BPS Career Academy and Technical Center plans to add career exploration courses in education to entice students to enter the teaching profession, according to Dale Hoerauf, director of the Career Academy.

There will be education exploration courses in ninth and 10th grades, and dual credit courses will be offered in 11th and 12th grades, according to Horeauf, who was part of a state task force last year that looked at teacher shortages and identified solutions. The Career Academy is working with the University of Mary, Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University to develop the coursework.

"At the Career Academy, we hear it all the time: If there's a shortage of carpenters, then help," he said. "Our goal is what's high-skill, high-demand? In this case, it's teaching. We're going to try to address the issue."

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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