A tale of two trends: School districts grapple with teacher shortage, student enrollment

Rural districts see growth, others deal with outside issues such as home prices

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As several school districts around the immediate Denver area have lost large numbers of students during the coronavirus pandemic, some districts — including ones in rural places and the outskirts of the Denver metro area — are seeing a different trend.

“We’ve been declining for, gosh, probably 20 years, and we’re supposed to decline continually,” Karen Quanbeck, superintendent of the Clear Creek School District just west of Jefferson County, said about student enrollment.

But she’s confident her district can fight the predicted decrease.

“In fact, for the first time in a long time in Idaho Springs, our preschools are full, and we had to split a typically one-kindergarten-classroom grade level into two,” Quanbeck said.

A school district’s number of students is important because it affects how much funding the district gets, known as “per-pupil funding.” Some rural districts, such as in Clear Creek and the Elizabeth School District east of Douglas County, are benefitting from housing market trends that bring in new families with children.

On the other hand, rural districts must compete against larger school districts in the metro area in terms of the salary they can pay teachers.

“Not only do we have that challenge competing with the large districts that neighbor us, but the pool of candidates that are available in the teaching profession is lower than it has been in the past. So we’ve got the double whammy,” said Kin Shuman, director of human resources for Elizabeth School District.

School districts also face challenges in filling the other positions that keep schools running, including outside the classroom.

“We do have a significant need for more special education teachers and paraprofessionals,” said Abbe Smith, spokesperson for the Cherry Creek School District in Arapahoe County. “We have had staffing shortages in areas such as bus drivers, food and nutrition workers, and paraprofessionals.”

New homes in Elbert County are shown on the county's website, where a notice is posted seeking a consultant to assess the county's housing needs.
New homes in Elbert County are shown on the county's website, where a notice is posted seeking a consultant to assess the county's housing needs.
Housing weighs on student numbers

Clear Creek County’s district may end up escaping the metro Denver trend of large student losses, at least in part because of housing trends caused by the pandemic.

Before the virus affected the market, families were aging in Clear Creek County and not being replaced in their homes by families with kids, Quanbeck said.

When workplaces decided employees didn’t have to be in the office amid the pandemic, some people had more flexibility in where they were going to live and drove up suburban home prices. Some people found they needed more space as families stayed in during the pandemic’s early days.

“There are interesting forces at play that no one could have predicted: that inspiration for our families who raised their kids to maybe sell their houses because they can get so much money for them,” Quanbeck said.

She added: “Both Floyd Hill and Idaho Springs are good examples of the housing prices just astronomically increasing, and that just causing houses to sell and then be purchased by different folks, and we just love it when they have kids.”

Anecdotally, the Clear Creek County district is seeing growth in younger grade levels, Quanbeck said.

Overall, 684 students were enrolled in Clear Creek School District as of February 2020, according to the district. As of the most recent count, the number was 701, the district said.

The trend is similar in the rural Elizabeth district in Elbert County, where large developments have enabled the student count to increase over the last two to three years, Shuman said.

In the 2019-20 school year, the Elizabeth district counted 2,373 students. As of Aug. 22 this year, the district’s unofficial count was 2,511 students.

“I think it’s fair to say the assumption right now is the cost of housing increase in Elizabeth, like many other fringe areas to larger cities, hasn’t quite kept the rate of change as Denver proper and as a result has been more enticing to families who (can’t afford) Denver,” said Bill Dallas, Elizabeth’s acting interim superintendent.

Outside funding for teachers

Meanwhile, the Elizabeth district’s number of teachers has also seen an uptick.

Elizabeth had 126 individuals contracted as teachers as of May 2020 data, and it now has 133 teachers on contact, according to the district. The district’s number of teachers was relatively stable in the few years before 2020, according to Shuman.

Despite headlines about teacher shortages, there are some cases where school districts have brought on new teachers with pandemic assistance-related funding.

“Like all districts, (we have) been able to have some positions to help with any learning gaps that opened up in the last three years in the pandemic. An example of that is math interventionists and reading interventionists,” Dallas said.

Dallas spoke of ESSER money, or the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding from the federal government via laws such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security — or CARES Act and the more recent American Rescue Plan Act.

Clear Creek County’s district has added grant-funded positions, and depending on the year of the pandemic, the district’s staffing levels have either decreased or remained stable, Quanbeck said.

“It’s not huge shifts, but again, it’s really been buffered by the grant positions we have, which really is not sustainable — you really have to have your enrollment increase to support those positions,” Quanbeck said. Otherwise, there isn’t enough funding because grants eventually end.

Seeking grant funding for teaching positions is common especially in small rural districts because of the funding issues in those areas, Quanbeck added.

At least in Clear Creek County, the challenges of teaching during the pandemic don’t appear to have deterred teachers from sticking around.

“We are not seeing people leave the profession because they are exhausted, frustrated, burnt out. I thought we would, but we didn’t. People came back,” Quanbeck said.

Clear Creek County’s district had 42 teachers as of February 2020, and it had 47 teachers as of the most recent count, according to the district.

A Jeffco school bus drops students off at Rooney Valley Elementary in Lakewood, Aug. 19.
A Jeffco school bus drops students off at Rooney Valley Elementary in Lakewood, Aug. 19.
Not just a teacher shortage

While the oft-discussed teacher shortage looks different in different places, Elizabeth’s leader noted that teaching positions aren’t the only ones with a spotlight on them.

“The reality is we are all impacted by this teacher shortage, and it isn’t just teachers — it’s paraprofessionals, it’s bus drivers, it’s cooks, it’s everything,” Dallas said.

Cherry Creek — a district that includes much of Centennial, south Aurora and nearby suburbs — said in a statement it is “fortunate in that we have not seen a significant decline in teachers” since the pandemic began.

Cherry Creek had 3,405 teachers in the 2019-20 school year, and it counted 3,318 teachers in the 2021-22 year, according to the state’s data online.

“The pandemic definitely made the shortage of special education teachers and paraprofessionals more dire,” said Smith, the Cherry Creek spokesperson. “We are able to support all classrooms and needs right now, but we are also still seeking to hire more staff in this area.”

For this school year, the Cherry Creek district gave all teachers a salary increase via movement in “steps and lanes” and with a 3% raise, Smith said.

Traditionally, teachers have been paid on "step and lane" salary schedules where teachers earn raises for each additional year of experience, or "steps," and can move to higher "lanes" by earning additional education credits and degrees, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Smith added: “Certainly, we believe housing costs in the Denver metro area are part of the driving force behind the teacher shortage in Colorado.”

In Clear Creek County, which doesn’t include much flat land where homes can be built, the district recently sold Golddigger field and other pieces of land it considered “excess property,” Quanbeck said. At least part of the change was a move to support local teachers’ ability to live close to where they work in Clear Creek.

The former “Golddigger” property saw plans to feature some “workforce housing,” where at least some of the units are below market rate, and some are available to the district’s educators, Quanbeck said.

“I just am glad I’ll be able to help teachers with housing because when they drive through two or three other districts where they can make $5,000 to $10,000 more” it can be difficult to work in Clear Creek, Quanbeck said. Many teachers live outside the county and commute, she said.

In the Douglas County School District in the south Denver metro area, officials are considering larger pay increases to incentivize more teachers to remain in the district.

The district will ask voters for a “mill levy override” — a tax increase — in November, an effort that will be “100% dedicated to increasing teacher and staff pay,” said Erin Kane, the district’s superintendent.

“We really are doing everything we can to make sure we’re paying our teachers as competitively as possible,” Kane said.

The move comes as other Denver-area districts have approved or are considering raises for teachers or other staff. Douglas County’s proposed pay increase would give teachers up to a 9% increase in pay, according to Kane.

Douglas County had 3,662 teachers as of February 2020 and has 3,522 teachers as of late August this year, according to the district. It’s a decrease that Kane said was not a significant drop. Douglas County’s teacher count tracks with its student count, Kane said.

Looking ahead, Douglas County district officials are working on programming at the high school level to help develop future teachers who can stay in the county, Kane said.

“We’re working through what it’s going to look like, but it’s a teacher academy in the hope that our kids can get a college credit toward a teaching degree and hopefully come back and teach in Douglas County,” Kane said.

Student populations a mixed bag closer to Denver

The older parts of school districts in the south metro area can contribute to falling student enrollment, but at the same time, newer neighborhoods in other parts of the same districts can provide new students.

Fueling growth in the Cherry Creek district’s east side, new homes were still being built in the east Centennial and far-southeast Aurora areas, but enrollment had been dropping in the district’s west side and other pockets even before the pandemic.

Likewise, some Douglas County areas see “tremendous growth” where young families are moving in. But on the other hand, there are areas like in Highlands Ranch where young families moved in 20 to 25 years ago and never left, meaning today’s young kids are not replacing the ones that grew up there before, Kane said.

Meanwhile, the two major drivers of falling enrollment in Denver are declining birth rates and rising home prices that push families out of the city and prevent new ones from moving in, the news outlet Chalkbeat wrote in 2021 about the Denver Public Schools district.

“In the few years before 2020, we were pretty flat,” Kane said of Douglas County. “Our enrollment’s been flat for a while because we have areas of our district (that have) been growing and areas of our district that have been aging out.”

Douglas County counted 67,305 students in the 2019-20 school year, according to state data. The district’s count was 63,249 as of late August this year, according to numbers provided by the district.

The drop in enrollment came as districts across the state saw similar trends, according to Kane. “A lot of kids (were) moving into home schooling,” she said. The district generally can’t track all the students who went into home schooling, she added.

“We lost a lot of kids due to not having some of the schools open five days a week” during the early part of the pandemic, Kane said.

Part of Douglas County’s decrease in enrollment was due to a unique drop in students from HOPE Online closing its elementary operations, which accounted for a decrease in about 1,400 students, according to Kane.

HOPE Online was authorized by Douglas County, but they had students across the state who were factored into Douglas County’s student count, Kane said.

But officials anticipate some growth in both the student count and teacher count over the next few years as Douglas County housing development continues.

Cherry Creek district in Arapahoe County counted 56,172 students in the 2019-20 school year and 53,558 in 2021-22, according to state data. The district didn’t respond by press time regarding how many students it currently has.

Adams 14 School District headquarters in Commerce City.
Adams 14 School District headquarters in Commerce City.
Choice a factor in Adams district

In the rural Elizabeth district in Elbert County, the number of students who live in Elizabeth but go to other districts is a “wash” compared with the number of out-of-district kids choosing to attend school in the Elizabeth district, Shuman said — the two numbers have been generally close enough that they don’t make much of a difference.

But Mapleton Public Schools, a district of roughly 9,000 students just north of Denver in Adams County, every year attracts thousands of families who cross district boundaries to send their kids to schools there, the news outlet Chalkbeat reported in 2021. Their choices have helped keep up Mapleton’s enrollment during a time when most other metro area districts are losing students, Chalkbeat reported.

“Families are invited to consider everything from location and grades offered to school model and programs when choosing a school in Mapleton, which I think is very attractive to new and returning families,” Melissa Johnson, a Mapleton spokesperson, told Colorado Community Media.

In Mapleton, there are no “neighborhood schools," the district’s website says. Instead of automatically enrolling students in their neighborhood’s school, the district allows them to select a school “based on the learning style, interests, and passions” of the child, the site says.

For those who live within Mapleton's boundaries, the district provides transportation to their school of choice if they live a mile or more from that school, according to the website.

“As we are just starting our second week of school, our current teacher, employee and student counts are still a bit dynamic. In general, though, we are seeing stable growth in all areas and can report a similar stable, slightly upward trend over the last few years,” Johnson said in late August.

Colorado, teacher shortage, student enrollment, Clear Creek, Douglas County, Elizabeth, Cherry Creek School District

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