The stack of teacher resumes on Chris Mills' desk felt a little light this summer. Only eight hopefuls sought a job for the fall in his rural northwest Minnesota school district.
"Ten years ago, we would have 80 to 100," the Stephen-Argyle superintendent said.
The story was the same 90 minutes south in Erskine, Minnesota, where an open teaching slot drew only about 20 applicants. "Normally we would get 150 applications for that position," said Randy Bruer, superintendent of the Win-E-Mac district.
It's pretty much the same wherever you go outside the Twin Cities. The state's rural superintendents say they've noticed a sharp decline in applicants for teaching jobs. Shortages in fields like special education, math and science are not new in Minnesota. But school leaders are starting to see that spread to openings that usually attract lots of applicants, like elementary teaching jobs.
There are theories — young teachers don't want to work in small towns; the state licensure exams are so hard they keep new teachers out of the workforce — but no one good explanation for why it's become harder for rural Minnesota to lure the next generation of educators.
Whatever the reason, superintendents and state officials are looking for new ways to attract teachers to rural areas.
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"We don't really have any concrete evidence about why, there's some speculation, hypothesis about what's going on. But it is a growing trend and I think it'll continue," said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.
Superintendents speculate that more young teachers want to work in larger towns and cities these days, and are shying away from taking jobs in rural areas, he said. Talk of low pay and increasing public scrutiny of teacher performance may also steer people from the career, he added.
Data show the supply of new teacher candidates in Minnesota has gone down in recent years. The number of people who finished teacher preparation programs at Minnesota colleges fell by 723 from 2009 to 2011, a 16 percent drop, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Janine Wahl, director of clinical experience for teacher candidates at Bemidji State University, wants the state to take a closer look at the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Exam, which she thinks is keeping some quality teachers out of the classroom.
Most students easily pass most of the exam, but she said many get tripped up by the so-called Basic Skills Test, which covers reading, writing and college level math.
"I have known some fantastic candidates here at BSU with high grade point averages, wonderful with the students, and they're not able to pass the basic skills test," she said.
Getting rid of the test won't be easy to sell to lawmakers, however.
The Legislature earlier this year considered scrapping the Basic Skills Test. In the end, they agreed to give new teachers some flexibility. Teachers can now get their licenses through the licensing exam or meet certain benchmarks in reading, writing and math on the ACT or SAT college entrance tests.
Rural superintendents are also talking about how to partner with the state to bring more teachers to small town Minnesota.
"Based on what I know, (what) the research suggests and what's going on in Minnesota, we need some incentives for teachers to want to teache in rural districts," said Richard Wassen, director of teacher licensing at the Minnesota Department of Education.
Those incentives could include expanding college loan forgiveness programs to include new teachers who take jobs in rural districts, or even housing stipends, he added.
Those won't solve the immediate problems, though. For Minnesota's rural superintendents, the short-term solution is to get in the car, drive to colleges and recruit qualified candidates, one teacher at a time.