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Dillingham School District aims to hire amidst teacher, housing shortages

 The side of the Dillingham Middle school/High school building
Christina McDermott
/
KDLG
The side of the Dillingham Middle school/High school building

In Dillingham, the school year ends in less than two months. When students return in August they’ll see many new faces.

As of Monday, the school district has 17 available jobs posted on the Alaska Teacher Placement website, a statewide clearinghouse where all districts advertise open staff positions. That’s more than a quarter of the current staff. Specifically, Human Resources Director Lindsay Henry said the school is hiring two teachers for the elementary school and five for the middle/high school.

At a recent city council meeting, school officials discussed the need to hire and retain teachers. Henry said that when it comes to recruiting teachers, Dillingham is a tough sell.

“[Interviewees] are asking, ‘What is your moving allowance? What are your incentives? What are your housing stipends?’” she said. “And we really don't have that offer.”

Teacher shortages, especially in rural Alaska, have made headlines for years. But the problem is national and twenty years in the making. A report released last year by the nonprofit think tank Economy Policy Institute showed that over the past 50 years, the number of college graduates that become teachers has dropped by about 60%. The report found that low wages and high stress levels, especially after the pandemic, are contributing to the decline. Teachers today earn 23% less than other college graduates. When you adjust for inflation, young teachers earn less than their older counterparts did starting out.

Elementary school principal Nick Tweet said between the relatively low pay scale, high cost of living, and lack of housing, Dillingham is at a competitive disadvantage.

We don't pay as much as Anchorage. We don't pay as much as Southwest [Region School District],” he said. “We often get to the end of interviews, and they ask about housing. You know, and that's a serious situation. Even when we get young teachers here, it's hard to keep them here, with the cost of living.”

In remote schools not accessible by the Alaska road system or marine highway, most teachers come from outside the community. More than 50% come from out-of-state. Superintendent Amy Brower said Dillingham’s lack of housing actually caused six teachers to turn down contracts last July. She said the district is working to hire teachers earlier so that they have more time to find housing. And the city plans to meet with Agnew Beck, an Anchorage-based consulting firm, in May to more precisely identify the community’s needs.

That work to hire teachers starts as soon as the school processes contracts from existing teachers. Brower said that along with posting jobs internally and externally, the district is fostering relationships with colleges and universities in other states so that their job postings reach a wider audience. It is also looking at hiring international teachers through a visa program.

Dillingham parent Dianna Schollmeier works for Southwest Region School District, which serves seven communities in the region. She said they’ve been recruiting since last fall.

It is an ongoing yearly process. We start our recruiting in October,” she said. “And then really [we] step it up in January focusing on what career fairs we're gonna go to.”

At career fairs, competition for applicants can be fierce, Schollmeier said. At one event she attended in Pittsburgh, PA, more than 500 school districts were seeking applicants.

Schollmeier believes school districts need to look to the community to help fill educational gaps. She said one way forward is Alaska’s emergency certification program – it allows anyone with an associate’s degree or higher to teach in their field of study.

“We always want teachers to be part of this community – actually born and raised, or moved here and stayed here,” she said.

Schollmeier calls this ‘investing in our people,’ and pointed out that existing community members are less likely to leave.

“We have teachers that have housing, that live here that are committed, and they will hopefully stay for more than a year and teach our kids because that longevity is important to our students and their learning,” she said.

Dillingham has worked with emergency certified teachers in the past and welcomes anyone interested to get in touch with the school. Schollmeier herself will volunteer to teach math in Dillingham this upcoming year.

Disclaimer: The Dillingham City School District owns KDLG's broadcasting license, but it does not influence or direct our coverage.

Get in touch with the author at christina@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Christina McDermott began reporting for KDLG, Dillingham’s NPR member station, in March 2023. Previously, she worked with KCBX News in San Luis Obispo, California, where she focused on local news and cultural stories. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich work that informs and connects the public.
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