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Small schools struggle to hire: Officials say they’re not getting enough qualified applicants for positions

Dave Wheeler, high school principal in Larimore, N.D., speaks Thursday to students at lunch. Wheeler said his district has been challenged with finding teachers who can teach more than one subject. Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — When Larimore (N.D.) Public School tried to hire a teacher who could teach both English and a foreign language last year, high school Principal Dave Wheeler said the school district didn’t get any qualified applicant.

“We had plenty of people say they could do the English class, but zero luck with the foreign language,” he said.

For smaller districts like Larimore, a district with 422 students located 30 miles west of Grand Forks, hiring can be a challenge because they often need teachers to teach across two content areas, he said. The law requires teachers to be highly qualified in each subject area, which can mean further testing for teachers, he said.

Similar stories of districts struggling to get a large pool of candidates echo throughout the region. Superintendents at several area school districts noted the requirements for teachers to teach are higher, while others said teachers simply prefer larger cities to live in.

But with fewer qualified teachers applying for certain jobs, smaller districts in Minnesota and North Dakota find themselves offering fewer elective classes, sharing staff or relying more on online classes, the superintendents said.

Harder to hire

Applications for positions can significantly vary depending on the content area, they said.

High school science, math, language arts, foreign languages and special education departments are particularly in need of teachers, with maybe one or two applying for these open positions in the area, they said.

Larger districts seem to more easily draw applicants.

Superintendent Chris Bates, who oversees Crookston (Minn.) Public School District 25 miles southeast of Grand Forks, used to work for Litchfield Public Schools, near the Twin Cities metro area.

His old employer, which has about 1,700 students, might receive 190 applicants for a social studies position or 25 for a math position. His current employer, which has about 1,200 students, might receive a fraction of those applicants, according to Bates.

“Clearly, one out of 25 is better than one out of four sometimes,” he said.

Grand Forks Public Schools, which has more than 7,000 students, tends to attract more applicants because it’s in a larger city, said Tracy Abentroth, human resources manager.

While interest in teaching at the elementary school level is still strong, elementary school teachers follow this pattern, too. The school district in Crookston might receive 50 or 60 applicants while the school district in Cavalier, N.D., which has nearly 400 students, might receive 15 or 20, said superintendents there.

Jeff Manley, superintendent of Cavalier Public School District, said the district used to get twice as many. “It’s not as easy as it use to be.”

In the event a neighboring district has a need for the same teacher as Cavalier, the districts will share the position, he said. Otherwise, the district relies on remote teaching for some of its classes — Spanish class through interactive television, advanced math online, he said.


Beyond federal loan forgiveness programs available to all states, North Dakota and Minnesota also offer ways to ease teacher or content shortage areas.

For instance, the Teacher Shortage Loan Forgiveness Program in North Dakota reduces up to a total of $3,000 in student loans for teachers who teach in content-shortage areas. These areas are determined by the state Department of Public Instruction.

Last year, the program received 470 applicants and funded 360, according to Brenda Zastoupil, financial aid director for the North Dakota University System, which co-administers the program.

In Minnesota, some state institutions offer scholarships or loan forgiveness programs that help teachers in high needs areas or who are from diverse populations, according to Josh Collins, spokesman for the state Department of Education. The state also provides options for licenses and can expedite requests to fill shortage or emergency position needs, he said.

But as districts in both states continue to manage these shortages, several will simply not offer the classes or not fill the position, superintendents said.

This is true for East Grand Forks (Minn.) Public School District. While growing enrollment in recent years hasn’t prevented the district from hiring, the district still could use more teachers for tech classes, said Superintendent David Pace.

His district has nearly 1,800 students.

“We’ve got students willing to take more tech classes, but just can’t find the staff to do it,” he said.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

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