It’s no secret that Wisconsin is facing a teacher shortage. This episode features an alliance of rural schools in Wisconsin that have banded together to recruit and attract teachers. The school districts of Cambridge, Lodi, Sauk Prairie, and Wisconsin Heights were awarded a $264k Workforce Innovation Grant from the State of Wisconsin to implement a multi-layered approach to helping alleviate their workforce problem. In this episode, you’ll meet the DA from Wisco Heights, Dr. Jordan Sinz, MS/HS Principal and grant administrator, Elizabeth Dostal, and a grant recipient – student teacher and future agriculture and technology education teacher, Abby Kucken. In this episode, you’ll learn how these four districts created a multi-layered approach and how it’s already benefiting others. Districts like Cambridge, Lodi, Sauk Prairie, and Wisconsin Heights are setting a trend – competitive teacher recruitment needs to be part of your district’s hiring strategies. Listen to this episode to hear they created the GROW cooperative and be sure to check the show notes for links.
Each school district has the same documentation on their websites. Below you’ll find a sample from Wisconsin Heights.
Workforce Innovation Grant Program
2023-25 Department of Workforce Development Governor’s Budget Recommendations
Gov. Evers Press Release (Announcing $5M funding in 2022)
Brogley: Thanks for speaking with me this morning, District Administrator Sinz. Let’s talk about Wisconsin’s teacher shortage. How has that impacted your school district?
Sinz: Yeah. Well, there’s certainly a few ways that come to mind immediately. I would say that as we’ve posted positions over the last five or six years, we have seen the pool in terms of the number of candidates continue to get smaller and smaller. I mean, elementary positions were earlier in my career. It would not be unusual to get, you know, 50 to 75, if not more applicants. At this point we’re probably seeing around 15-ish applicants for, like, an elementary position, some of the harder-to-fill areas, special education, you know, CTE type positions. We’ll be lucky if we have two or three certified candidates, and in one instance Business Education, actually we had a teacher leave mid-year, and we posted that position. We were unable to fill it for the remainder of that school year, and then actually we’re unable to fill it for the next year as well. So, our district has actually been working with Madison College and any business ed courses that our students want to take, they’re having to take through Madison College because, yeah, we basically went a year and a half ago being able to find a business head teacher. One thing I will say though, I mean the pool is definitely gotten tighter, but one thing that we’ve seen in this district that I don’t know that if this is, you know, similar in other districts, but we’ve actually seen an uptick in applicants with experience from other districts who have applied to work in Wisconsin Heights. So you know, we may be only getting 15 to 20 Elementary Ed applicants at this point compared to 75 or 100 years ago, but at the same time, we’re getting a handful of applicants that have you know, relatively significant experience in other districts. Um, and I think a lot of that’s probably in this post-Act 10 world that we’re living in. A lot of the post-employment benefits have gone away in districts. So those incentives to stay in a place for, you know, 25 to 30 years really don’t exist anymore. So a lot of teachers who have experience, are willing to consider other options, uh, maybe looking for a better fit, hoping that maybe they can get a salary increase by virtue of moving. So, that has been an interesting phenomenon that I don’t know that I would have predicted, you know, years ago. And certainly, it’s made for some interesting situations, though. Because yeah, when you have a handful of new candidates interviewing against someone that has 10 years of experience. That’s certainly a challenging situation for someone that’s right out of college. Because of the, you know, experience factor and then just the shortage in general, I would say the other pieces were certainly paying more. We’ve had to be pretty aggressive with increasing our starting pay the last couple of years for even staff members with no experience, but then if we are able to hire individuals with experience, you know, instead of hiring someone at the bottom of the salary schedule, we’re potentially hiring someone that’s in the middle to the top end of the salary schedule because they’re coming to us with 10 or 15 years of experience and oftentimes a master’s degree as well. And then I think the other part that really the shortage and the impact of the lack of candidates we’ve had to step up our game in terms of branding, in terms of HR, in terms of. How we promote our district, what we do on social media. So to me, that’s an area that public schools probably weren’t real good at years ago, but for those of us that are trying to, basically, stay competitive and stay attractive for teachers that are out looking, we feel a great sense of ownership as a district to make sure that the image that we’re putting out, the information that we’re putting out, it looks good, it looks professional, it looks polished because we know people are shopping and as much as we’re looking for them, they’re, they’re shopping around and deciding which district they may want to work in. So I think that’s another thing that you know maybe is an unintended consequence and that people want to have predicted, but to me that’s definitely apparent at this point is we’ve had to up our game.
Brogley: Back, you know, I started teaching 20 plus years ago, school communications, PR, marketing. That wasn’t a position and now it, it is definitely, if it’s not a position in a district, it’s an absolute shared responsibility today you’ve also done some work to take matters into your own hands in recruitment. Talk to me about the Grow Cooperative.
Sinz: Yeah. Well, so at the most basic level, the Grow Cooperative is a partnership between our district, Wisconsin Heights, Sauk Prairie, which we share a border with Lodi, which is one district over from Sauk Prairie, and then the Cambridge School District as well, which is a little bit further away from the rest of the group, but also shares a lot of similarities in terms of being a rural district and struggling to find a large pool of candidates. So the most basic sense that’s the, that’s the Grow Consortium. But kind of how did this come to be? I was trying to finish my Dissertation in 2019-2020. And it just so happened that we had a pandemic and life changed a lot. And I decided that was my sign that I needed to finish. So I really poured myself into my dissertation at that time. And my topic was actually teacher staffing trends in rural schools in Wisconsin. So that research led me down a path of really trying to find innovative or creative ways to do something about the issue, I interviewed superintendents. I looked at a lot of data and there’s clearly an issue in rural schools. There’s also a large issue in urban schools as well, for what it’s worth. But in rural schools, in this context, both the data and superintendents lived experience would say that there’s a problem. Being someone that really doesn’t like to just sit back and accept things, I decided, we decided as a district we were going to try to do something about it. So we analyzed research as a part of our process in trying to get the grant off the ground. And the research was strong. And the fact that individuals that attend high school and that grew up in rural communities are more likely to want to come back to rural communities. And then from a teaching standpoint, they’re also more likely to stay because we don’t just have a recruitment issue, we have a retention issue. So we decided as we were trying to get the Grow Cooperative off the ground that we were going to target our own students in our rural communities and try to incentivize them entering into the profession and then incentivize them staying in the profession but in our rural communities. So at that time, myself and then our principal, Liz Dostal, kind of came up with the idea of trying to partner with schools in our region that were rural as well and that we thought had kind of an innovative mindset and would understand of what we’re trying to do and want to be proactive like we were, and that’s what led us down the path of Sauk, Prairie, Lodi and Cambridge. And really with the program in our cooperative, we have kind of a threefold, I would say, approach to trying to stimulate the pipeline, get kids into our districts and hold on to them. So one part of the approach is trying to get more field experience for our existing high school students. So doing some job shadowing and working with our teachers as juniors and seniors and really promoting that as an option. And then the second part is scholarship program and there are scholarships for seniors who are then leaving high school. Going into college there are $2000 scholarships for students that are, like, sophomore junior status in college. And then there’s actually a scholarship available for junior senior status students who are in the field of Ed in their program of study and will be student teaching in like the next year. So this year we actually funded in the fall, we funded our first five $10,000 scholarships, which was an awesome experience. The students from our districts were obviously incredibly grateful. $10,000 is pretty substantial, so they really appreciated that we got some positive publicity. We had Governor Evers here at Wisconsin Heights for a press conference, which for us was a big deal and really was a celebration. And then the third piece of trying to promote education and getting kids kind of a foot in the door earlier is we’re trying to get students School of Ed credits while they’re still in high school. So at this point, we’ve added, I believe three or four courses to our respective course handbooks at each of the four districts. And this will provide students with up to 12 credits potentially through early college options while they’re still in high school. So they could enter into their university of choice with 12 credits already done in the School of Education.
Brogley: That is fantastic. So the first round of awards came out this fall, correct?
Brogley: And where did you find funding to make this happen?
Sinz: Yep. So we wrote the Department of Workforce Development, put out a grant opportunity here for they called it a workforce innovation grant. I mentioned Liz Dostall, our middle school high school principal here at Wisconsin Heights. She’s a very skilled writer. She has experience in writing grants. So Liz and I collaborated on getting that started and then to our partner districts, what we really offered them was a grant application that was basically complete. We just needed them to sign on and say yes, which they did, thankfully. So we applied for that DWD grant and we found out in June of last year that we were funded for $264,000. So that $264,000 served as kind of our seed money. And then each of our respective districts has committed approximately $22,000 budget for the next two years to then keep this going for at least like the next five or six years. The hope, the vision, is that we experience success, that we’re able to bring Grow graduates back to our districts and we have good experiences, our school board sees the value in this, our community sees the value in this and that we’re then able as districts to continue to fund the program. Because yes, between the scholarships and the early college credits, there is an investment that the districts need to make, but that’s another thing that once again came out in the research. S chools really have not done a whole lot historically in terms of investing dollars and talent. We had this captive pool that just came to us and that’s not the case anymore. The private sector has been spending money to invest in employees for a long time through paid internships and other things, and it’s probably time that education comes around because we don’t have the pool that we used to have.
Brogley: And with that, he enlisted in the help of Middle School Principal, Elizabeth Dostal as she had significant grant writing experience.
Brogley: Tell me your experience with grant writing and why you decided to take this on because no doubt grant writing is massive undertaking on top of everything you’re already doing, right? And it consumes several hours of your days and nights. Talk about that.
Dostal: So before I was a high school principal, I was a director of instruction in a different district, and I worked with a grant writer in that district and we would co-write grants for Department of Defense. And so she helped teach me how to write a good grant and since that time I’ve been writing grants on my own for the districts that I’ve been in. I’ve been reading grants for the Department of Education at the federal level since the early 2000s. So whenever they have a call for peer reviewers, I will answer the call, and if I’m selected, I read grants for them. So I like to do that process because you get to see what’s going on in different parts of the country. What are some trends in different educational settings? And then it always gives me the opportunity then to come back to my own district and apply what I’ve learned. So that’s my background and interest in that. In regards to this current grant that we have from the Department of Workforce Development, the Workforce Innovation Grant, my District Administrator was writing his dissertation and I was his editor and his topic of his dissertation was teacher retention and quality. And when the Wisconsin Innovation Grant program application was released, I said we should apply because this is exactly what your dissertation was about. So, and that’s what we did.
Brogley: And how difficult was it to write?
Dostal: I’m still in contact with the grant writer that I used to work with, and version 12 was the winner.
Brogley: That gives me an idea. So certainly well worth it as students are already or future teachers, preservice educators, are already benefiting from your hard work and innovative spirit. How is the grant managed?
Dostal: So I am serving as the grant director or project manager and we started. We were awarded the grant in July and we offered our first scholarship, which was five $10,000 scholarships to teacher candidates that were graduating either in December of 2022 or May of 2023. And so, we sent applications out to all schools of AD within Wisconsin and asked them to advertise to students who were pre-service teachers who were going to either be student teaching in the fall or student teaching in the spring. We did prioritize students who had graduated from one of the Grow districts, but we also prioritized certain certifications because we knew that there were certain things that we did need looking ahead to this spring of 2023 season. So we had 62 applicants that first round in August from all over the state, and we ended up awarding four of those. 5 scholarships to alumni of Wisconsin Heights, Lodi and Sauk Prairie School districts and then we had one applicant that is a Fort Atkinson alumni, but she is majoring in agriculture education and one of our districts in our cooperative knew they’re going to need an Ag teacher this spring, so we made the decision to award her the 5th scholarship.
Brogley: One more recap how what is the division of awards, because you do give some for what I would consider underclassmen and then it kind of goes up from there. Talk about that scale, but then also the expectation of giving back in those later years.
Dostal: Yeah. So each high school in our in our consortium which is Lodi, Sauk, Prairie, Cambridge High School and Wisconsin Heights High School is going to offer one senior scholarship for a senior who is declared major in education and that’s $1000 and then we offer ten Alumni of our high schools renewable educational scholarships and those are $2000 each. And then on this next round which is we’re currently in process on, we are going to offer seven $10,000 scholarships.
Dostal: So we just like right now I’m taking applications from high school seniors and from current college students who are in their third through 6 semesters of college work and then we are opening next week the $10,000 application again, and we’re going we’ll pick seven across the state for that so.
Brogley: And the expectation for those seven?
Dostal: That when they are on the job market, they will be asked to apply to our member districts and if they are interviewed and offered a contract they accept the contract with one of the member districts.
Brogley: Excellent. So brings those teachers back, right?
Dostal: Yes. Keeps them there. Yes, it does. How and how many years do they have to stay with that district? district? 3, three years, years, So how will the alliance continue to be funded? Obviously, the grant was kind of your starter money, I assume. How does this continue?
Dostal: So as part of our part of writing a grant, you always have to be able to articulate how you’re going to maintain this program once grant funding ends. we started with the intent to use the grant money as seed money and at the same time that we are starting the program, each partner district is committing around $12,000 every six months into a savings account. And so by the end of the grant, we will have saved almost the entire amount of the grant award. And then we’re going to be able to continue the program in the post-grant because we just continue to save this money out of our operating budgets and then put it into a savings account. So it’s going to be funded going forward. Once you get it expense in a school district budget, and it’s accepted and it’s just part of doing business. Then it’s not as difficult going forward. It was selling each Superintendent or district administrator talk to their board about the program and why it was, why it was needed and that this teacher shortage is real and that we were going to need quality candidates going forward. And this is one way to at least guarantee candidates every spring when we’re hiring. So the boards all consented to donating about $24,000 every year into this cooperative, and we’ll have access to teacher candidates. The other long-term piece of this is that we are partnering with UW Whitewater to offer 12 credits of early college credit educational classes in each of our high schools. So they’ll be online, but they’ll be able to take like the human development class or child development psychology class and special education. required classes – Things that are transferable to any UW institution and most private schools for schools of education so that they can get some experience and also volunteer in classrooms while they’re still in high school, so that they get that taste of whether they like teaching and what teaching looks like from the backside because they’ve only experienced it from the front side and so many people don’t realize there’s a whole backside that goes on in education and they’re shocked when they see it. And so to me, it’s really important for our senior, well, our high school students and for students going into the field to understand it looks different when you’re the teacher, and so that you don’t get someone who gets into it and like oh God this is not what I thought it was. So the sooner we can give them those experiences in my opinion the better. You know because then you really get people who, okay, this is what I thought it was and this is what I like about it versus “Oh my God, no”.
Brogley: I would also think that getting them started in high school and developing that appreciation and connection for their own district, their roots further supports the idea of them returning back to their you know, their home school to teach.
Dostal: Yeah. And I think home region. So like right now we have one of our scholarship winners who’s an alumni of our district is interning with us in our elementary school. But she’s teaching at the same grade level as her mom. And she’s, she’s like, it’s wonderful because she’s learning, you know, in the situation, she’s learning a great deal, but like she said, you know, I’m glad that I’m going to be able to go to one of the other three districts because I need to also get my own independence in my own classroom, you know, at a different grade level. And so the nice thing about it is, yeah, she can teach at soccer Lodi or Cambridge and she satisfies the contract and she getting set three years of experience, but she’s still in the region she wants to be in.
Brogley: That’s great. It seems like such a holistic approach with regards to starting early, wrapping around the student before they graduate and then further supporting them as they begin their undergraduate with the potential for, you know, really outstanding support in the home stretch when money is incredibly tight.
Brogley: Let’s end this episode with a grant recipient perspective. Abby Kucken is one of the recipients of the $10,000 grant scholarship. I think it’s important that you hear firsthand from her how this scholarship has impacted and propelled her into the homestretch of her undergraduate career. Be sure at the end of this episode to look at back at our show notes at proudruralteacherpodcast.com for some helpful links.
Brogley: Alright, Abby, thank you for meeting with me today. You’re a preservice educator in your last semester of college. Let’s talk about where you’re from and where did you go to school.
Kucken: So I am from Fort Atkinson, WI where I graduated, K through 12. I went there and then I chose UW Platteville for my studies. So now I am just getting over the hump. I’m student teaching in Lodi right now and I’m super excited to get out in the classroom.
Brogley: And what are your certifications going to be?
Abby: I will be dually-certified to teach agriculture as well as Tech Ed from birth to 21.
Brogley: The Grow Alliance came up on your radar. How did you find out about this opportunity?
Abby: So as a college student, you get about a million emails a day, so usually you just swipe through them. But also as a college student, when you see something that says free money, you open it. So I was scrolling through my emails and the School of Education had actually sent it out because I was doing my pre-student teaching in Lodi. So they kind of knew I was in this area and they sent it to me and I was like, OK, like, never hurts to fill out an application. I’ve always looked at it like, if you fill out, if you work an hour on an application, they give you 250 bucks. That’s $250 an hour you just made. So when I see $10,000 flash on my screen, I’m, like, working hard on that. Then they were interested so I was, I just, yeah, I just kept going with it.
Brogley: So you you know, you waited and you found out you received it. What was your reaction to winning the $10,000 scholarship.
Kucken: So, I was driving. So I live in Lodi right now with my fiance while I’m student teaching and I was pre-student teaching at the time. So we were actually driving back to my parents’ house in Fort Atkinson and we’re driving down Main Street and my watch goes off and, you know, I get my emails on my watch and I, like, almost crashed my car on Main Street because I was like it said “Congratulations” and it the Grow e-mail on it. And I was absolutely shocked because you never know the person that wins the big scholarships. Like, it’s never you, it’s never your best friend. So that it was me was like an absolute shock to me and that someone wanted to invest, like, in me becoming a teacher for them was amazing.
Brogley: What does the $10,000 mean for you?
Kucken: First of all, going to college, I never knew how I was going to pay off my student debt. I took the loans and I took as many scholarships as I could, but obviously most people nowadays, especially with the price of college, you don’t graduate debt free. And that’s just the reality. And this took my student debt to under $10,000, which like that’s a quarter of my schooling that I paid for basically. So having especially again these four schools that said, “Hey, we believe in you. We would like you to stay in this profession and to invest in you,” was super amazing. Like something that I could have never asked for, and I’m so thankful for them.
Brogley: And how’s your time at Lodi been?
Kucken: I absolutely love my kids. I love being in the classroom. You get to a point when you’re in college and you just kind of get this burnout. Like I’m never going to make it to the classroom. So now that I’m there every day, it’s like. I know that that’s where I’m supposed to be.
Brogley: So, and it’s great to see you reach the end of your undergrad. knowing that you’ve been supported and folks have wrapped around you. Any other thoughts that you’d want to share?
Kucken: I just want to give a shout-out to all of the UW Platteville people and all the teachers that have gotten me this far. Obviously, I didn’t get here by myself. I had to have a lot of strong guidance. So I appreciate all of the people out there that supported me, not only with the Grow Alliance, but all of the educators that got me this far.
Brogley: The Workforce Innovation Grants were originally set up as a one-time investment using funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. According to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Governor Evers, however, proposed investing $100 million in state funds in another round of Workforce Innovation Grants. Because budget deliberation are currently ongoing, it’s too hard to tell at this point if future funding will be available. Please check our show notes at Proudruralteacherpodcast.com for relevant links to the GROW cooperative and the Workforce Innovation grants.