Students have their pencils and backpacks ready to go, and teachers have set up their rooms.

Across the state, schools have either started new sessions or are preparing to do so shortly.

But for some more rural districts, the preparation itself can be a challenge. Across the country, there have been several recent reports of a teacher shortage, and some officials say in rural areas, filling positions can be complicated.

According to the Nebraska Department of Education 2014-15 Teacher Vacancy Survey, 3,220 positions were listed as available during the year. Of those, 166 were unfilled, meaning the position was filled by someone other than a fully qualified teacher or was left vacant. The results also showed that 12.5 positions were left vacant.

Of the unfilled positions, 63 were in districts or systems with less than 500 students, and 77 were in districts or systems with more than 2,500 students.

Jon Habben, executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, said those numbers represent something he has seen.

In big and small areas alike, Habben said, the problem might reflect a change before teachers enter the job market.

Sometimes, he said, when schools looking to fill a certain position go to colleges to recruit, they find that the majors available to students are no longer geared solely to producing educators but instead toward giving students a certain set of skills.

In those instances, Habben said, the private sector might be better at luring students with that skill set.

William Porter, superintendent at Elba Public School in Howard County, agreed.

Porter said that, in years past, there were fewer options in the private sector for students, and education has changed over the years.

“Education has changed dramatically with all the paperwork and all the pressures,” he said. “It’s not as open a career.”

Agriculture and industrial technology are some areas in which that can happen, Habben said. When it does, it leaves gaps. In fact, both were listed as shortage areas in Nebraska for this school year. The report also noted that, of the 20 shortage areas, science, special education and world language have been on the list for the last 14 years, and language arts, mathematics and speech language pathology have been shortage areas for at least five years.

At smaller schools, he said, shortages in those areas can often make a huge difference.

“The shortage in rural schools takes on somewhat of a different look,” Habben said. “If you cannot find an ag teacher and you wish to have an ag program, you might not have an ag program at all.”

With a smaller population pool to draw from in rural areas, districts might also only get a handful of applicants for an open position, especially if they aren’t able to advertise to reach a larger group.

While Porter said his district is fully staffed, that’s something he saw when filling eight positions this year.

“There are not as many applicants when you send out now as there were 10 years ago,” he said.

In a more limited pool of options, Habben said, districts might sometimes not find the right person to fit their staff.

Results from the Teacher Vacancy Survey seem to reflect that. When allowed to identify reasons for unfilled positions, 75 percent of respondents said there were no fully qualified applicants.

Nebraska’s geographic and population diversity can make a difference, too, Habben said.

Vacancies across the state are not evenly distributed, he said. Some teachers might only want to teach in the more populated areas in the eastern part of the state or stay closer to a bigger city.

“It’s deeper than just the numbers of this many graduates and this many positions,” Habben said.

But for all the challenges they face, some say rural districts also have advantages.

Cory Worrell, superintendent of Boone Central Schools in Boone County, said they saw that when filling their eight open positions this year. They are also fully staffed.

For as many people as there are who do not want to live in a rural area, there are a number that want to move back to that specific area, Worrell said.

They can use the attraction of moving back home or living in a small community, he said, and often, smaller schools can offer opportunities for new teachers to lead a program or be a coach right away.

Porter said at Elba, once they have interviewed candidates, they try to share more about what the small school atmosphere can give them.

“When we get them in, we try to impress upon them what we’re all about,” he said.

They also try to make the community welcoming, Porter said, such as by ensuring there will be housing options for new teachers.

Those steps might be a key to both recruiting more teachers and getting them into rural districts, Habben said.

While the loss of programs makes it difficult to find more teachers for those areas, he said, adding resources for teachers helps smaller schools.

Worrell said sharing what positions are in demand with colleges might also help as students choose career paths.

At Boone Central, he said, they know what positions might be harder to fill, such as in agriculture and science, and they make sure to advertise widely and well in advance.

He said if rural school districts are proactive and organized, they can find the right candidates whether there’s a shortage or not — and that’s the most important thing.

“It kind of comes down to having tenacity as a district to not just find people, but find quality people to fill those positions,” he said.

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