ND fighting national teacher shortage

BISMARCK, N.D. - Schools in rural North Dakota are fighting a national trend: low retention rates. Not for students, but for teachers.

From 2008 to 2016, the number of education degrees awarded dropped by more than 15 percent, and enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by nearly 40 percent. But since 2015, North Dakota has been using a new first-year mentorship program that's yielding positive results.

Courtney Heupel is new to the job, but not new to her school. Teaching in Medina seemed to be her fate.

"I kinda grew up around it. My mom teaches; I have a lot of other relatives that teach, and it was just always fun coming in during the summer and hanging around. Just a great atmosphere,” Heupel said.

Heupel will tell you she's energetic and confident, but having a teacher mentor was a reliable source of support.

"If I didn't have support from her and just other people around, I think i could've easily double-guessed myself or second-guessed and kinda retreated into the shell. But because of that, I've just been able to go for it,” Heupel said.

She is enrolled in the state's First-Year Teacher Mentorship Program, which connects new teachers with the vets; helping the rookies learn to make lesson plans and how to work with students.

"You really don't know what you're getting into until you're in your own classroom. And once you're in your own classroom, there are things they don't teach you in the classroom and you really need that extra support and that extra help,” Heupel’s Mentor Jessica Schlecht said.

Since inception, the retention rates for first-year teachers who take part in the program have increased every year; up to 94 percent in 2018. Compared to those who didn't participate, 85 percent.

"Once, they've built that connection, once they feel that they're part of the community, and they've engaged themselves in our school, it's less likely that they'll be looking to jobs elsewhere,” Medina Principal Tara Hofmann said.

And teachers may become more sparse. The Economic Policy Institute predicts a widening teacher shortage in the next five years.

The First Year Teacher Mentorship Program was piloted in 2015 by the state for $2 million. While the first-year teachers don't receive a financial incentive, the mentors receive an $800 stipend per semester. Each year, the program receives more applications from first-year teachers than there are slots available. The legislature is considering expanding the program.