The clock is ticking for southwest Kansas area schools. School will be back in session in a matter of weeks, and some districts are still trying to fill vacant positions and battle the state’s teacher shortage.

School for Garden City USD 457 students starts Aug. 14, and the district has 47 vacant positions as of Wednesday, according to Deputy Superintendent Heath Hogan.

During a July 10 USD 457 Board of Education meeting, Hogan updated the board on where the district stands with vacant positions.

Hogan said then the number of teachers leaving at the end of the 2016-17 school year was down compared to previous years. At the end of the school year, the district had 19 retirees and 66 resignations for a total of 85 open positions, which doesn’t include summer resignations.

“Typically, we’re in the ball park of 100. That’s what we’ve had in the past,” Hogan said during the meeting.

Last year — all year long — the district hired 43 positions, so USD 457 is doing better than where it was a year ago in terms of filling positions.

“We still have lots of work to do, but we’re happy that we’re better than where we were a year ago,” Hogan told board members.

For comparison, USD 457 had 58 positions open in mid-July 2016, and for the 2016-2017 school year, the district started off with 38 vacancies, and 28 of those were filled with long-term substitutes and the other 10 were absorbed positions, Hogan said, meaning other teachers took on additional students or some classes were removed to fit the need.

“We’re certainly better than we were a year ago at this time, and so that’s great, but that’s not to say that we still don’t have our challenges in front of us,” Hogan said.

Recruiting and retention efforts

Hogan said in a separate interview Wednesday that there are several struggles in recruiting for USD 457, but the major one is location.

“Historically, Garden City has been a little tougher to recruit in. I think a majority of that comes from geography, Hogan said. “Our state has a few universities. We don’t produce enough candidates in our state to fill the positions we have statewide, so then we are kind of forced to go out of state.”

When going out of state, the district attends job fairs and competes with districts from other states.

“You’re sitting next to Las Vegas, Nev. So they have to make a choice, ‘Do I come to Garden City, Kan., or do I go to Las Vegas, Nev.?’” Hogan said. “They’re going to have a job option wherever they go because there are less candidates to choose from.”

Hogan said one of the reason the district already has hired more teachers for this school year than all of 2016-17 is because district officials have attended more job fairs than in the past. He said USD 457 had scheduled to attend 44 job fairs in 19 states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.

“I think that shows the amount of work it’s going to take to fill positions,” he said. “We’re going to have to continue to do more nontraditional ways.”

The district also offers various programs and incentives to attract teachers to Garden City, including the Grow Your Own program.

“It’s had some movement, but it’s going to take a few years before that really has any impact for us,” Hogan said, “But the focus is we’re trying to implement it at the high school level, trying to get kids interested in education and give them a clear pathway to pursue an education degree.”

Other recruiting methods include using alternative licensing programs that include the Transition 2 Teaching program, a two-year program where people with bachelor's degrees outside of education can pursue an education degree in just two years. The Master of Arts in Teaching program through Kansas State University is another program.

Hogan said the district also is encouraging its classified employees to go back to school to acquire teaching credentials.

“There are programs that are being implemented by universities that will assist with this,” he said.

The district also started a teacher retention committee last year, Hogan said, though it is still in the infant stages.

Teachers recruited

Scott Glass, a chemistry teacher at Garden City High School who hails from Michigan, has been with USD 457 since 2010.

“I found out about the district through one of the job fairs in Michigan,” he said.

That was in 2008, and the individual who talked with Glass sold the district to him. Glass interviewed for a math position, but didn’t get it, he said.

“So I went on and continued doing what I was doing for a whole ‘nother year,” Glass said. “I wound up running into this district again the second time. I handed in my résumé and didn’t expect much because of what had happened before.”

Five days later, Glass received a call from the district, had a Skype interview and was invited to come down to Garden City for a followup interview.

“They gave me a chemistry job even though I was a math major — chemistry is my minor — and from there until now, it’s really just been building experience in a district that’s different than others I’ve seen before,” he said. “There’s other districts you can go to, but it’s run of the mill. You sit down, do your 40 years and then that's it. This district, to me, it allows you to be innovative and it celebrates innovation. When you’re doing something a little bit different than anybody else and it’s working, you get the credit for it.”

That innovation is just one of the reasons factors Glass has stayed in USD 457 and Garden City —1,200 miles from his hometown — for the last seven years.

“The community backup is amazing here. When you go to a school board meeting, and you hear them talk about what we’re doing at each individual school, and then just the attitude they take toward teachers and students,” Glass said. “It’s the right fit in how education should be run.”

Despite the long distance from his hometown of Marquette, Mich., Glass still visits home a couple times a year.

“I spent 25 years of my life on the southern shore of Lake Superior, where all you can see is endless, flat water, and then I come out here and it’s completely flat and not water,” Glass said of southwest Kansas. “I come out here and I built my own little niche. I have the sports I can do. I travel. You’ve got Colorado to the west, big cities to the east and south, so if you want to get away for a weekend, you still can.”

Glass noted that he didn’t think he would stay in Garden City for as long as he has.

“I think one of the things that kept me here is two years in, I got a department leadership position, and it sort of gave me new direction in where I was going,” he said.

For Sarah Drubinkskiy, special education math teacher at Charles O. Stones Intermediate Center, what brought her to Garden City was her husband, Yuriy, a math teacher at GCHS, was recruited at a job fair in Michigan by the district about five years ago.

“When they flew him out, they told me I could fly out with him. So when he was being interviewed, they asked me what I was going for. I said education, and they told me there would probably be a job open for me as soon as I graduated,” Sarah said. “That was an incentive for Yuriy to take the job knowing that I could get a job in the district with him.”

Sarah said the options that were given to her and Yuriy were nice.

“It wasn’t just a, ‘We have this position that 200 people applied for.’ It was, ‘We have these positions, which one is best for you?’” she said.

Sarah said what’s kept her and her husband in the district for the last five years was the freedom she has in the classroom and support from her colleagues.

“They let me do my own robotics club the first two months I was there, and they’ve been really supportive of that,” she said. “My principal has been really supportive. I get to do a lot of things I don’t think I could do in other districts or schools, and in that sense, I would recommend Garden City.”

Sarah said the number of recreational activities to do outside of school is also a plus.

“I play hockey, rugby, softball and this is the only place I’ve found where I can do all of those in the same town. That’s also a big draw for me is the stuff I can do.” she said.

Coming home

Asa Gottsponer didn’t have to travel far from home for his teaching position.

Gottsponer, who is from Garden City, was hired as the strength and conditioning teacher for Kenneth Henderson Middle School.

A 2012 GCHS graduate and 2016 University of Kansas graduate, Gottsponer taught one year at Lakin Elementary School before coming to Garden City to teach at the same middle school he attended about 10 years ago.

“One of the big reasons is all the jobs are out here and there’s not much in eastern Kansas,” Gottsponer said as one of the reasons why he returned to southwest Kansas. “After going away to KU for college, it just showed how much I really did want to come back home and how much the people of the community are a part of me. I always wanted to come back.”

Gottsponer will be coaching high school football and middle school track. He himself was a standout in both sports while in high school. He said he heard of the job opening he applied for by staying in contact with some of his former coaches, including GCHS Athletics Director Drew Thon and GCHS head football coach Brian Hill.

Gottsponer said he was both relieved and saddened when he heard he got the job. Relieved because he got the job, but sad because he would’ve liked to work alongside Mike Smith, former GCHS PE teacher and track coach who retired at the end of last school year, and Derek Goble, former middle school PE teacher and football coach who moved to Derby. Gottsponer it taking over Goble’s old position

Moving ahead

USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin, who was out of the office and not available for comment this past week, said during the July 10 board meeting that many of the places USD 457 recruits from don’t start school until after Labor Day, so a lot of candidates are trying to get jobs close to home.

“We sometimes get a lot of ‘no’s’ from some people because they think they are going to be that one out of 100 that’s going to be selected for that job close to home,” he said. “We’re going to continue to be working with those people and the universities. That’s another opportunity for us to do some additional hiring.”

Karlin said the district will continue to hire after school starts if needed.

“This (teacher shortage) is a universal problem, and you won’t see it solved this year,” he said. “Our hope is to keep this from getting any worse than it was last year and start making some progress.”