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Vida teacher Sherry Hanie

Elementary teacher Sherry Hanie reads a science lesson to her students at Vida Elementary in September 2016. Hanie has been teaching about 17 years and lives next to the school. Her home can be seen from the classroom window.

Montana's rural teacher shortage is well-documented. But sweeping solutions to the problem are elusive; instead, programs that can help pile up more like bricks in a wall. 

Montana State University is hoping to add some mortar. 

A new program that provides a route to teacher certification for potential educators who already have non-teaching bachelors degrees is aimed largely at adding a surge to the supply of rural teachers. 

“It’s people coming with their bachelor's degree in hand, and they’re interested in becoming teachers,” said Linda Vrooman Peterson, who leads the Office of Public Instruction's Accreditation and Educator Preparation Division.

Montana has long had a pathway for educators with extensive career experience to teach topics like welding or agriculture. But for the most part, becoming an English or Math teacher required an education degree and, in Montana, at least some in-person attendance at a university.  

Research shows difficulty accessing education programs can be an obstacle to getting more teachers into rural schools, especially when using a grow-your-own model that relies on people with pre-existing roots in a community. Research also indicates that comfort living in a rural community is a large predictor of a teacher's likelihood to work in a rural school over a long period of time. 

Other factors that fuel Montana's shortage include pay — the lowest in the nation for rookie teachers — and things like teaching conditions, wider industry attrition trends, and an aging workforce of veteran teachers. 

“We heard the call from superintendents and principals in rural and remote areas of our state who had people who wanted to come in and teach,” Ann Ewbank, an associate professor and administrator in MSU's education program, told the Montana Board of Public Education earlier in November. The Board of Regents, which oversees the Montana University System, approved the new program in September. 

The new degree would be almost all online and more intense than most graduate programs. Students would start in the summer semester and finish the next spring, taking 12 credits each semester. 

Board member Anne Keith, a Bozeman teacher, asked if students would be able to work full-time during the degree work. Ewbank didn't say explicitly, but strongly implied that the program would be a full-time endeavor.

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“This is a degree that is going to require a very intense commitment,” she said. “We are asking the candidates in this degree to give us three semesters of their life.”

The university has a list of about 60 people around the state who are interested in the degrees, Ewbank said. The first cohort, slated to begin in 2019, will likely have 15-20 people enrolled. 

Admission will depend in part on how well prepared applicants are in the "big four" subject areas; math, science, social studies and English. 

“We will evaluate the potential applicant and take a look at their preparation in terms of seeking an endorsement in that particular area,” Ewbank said. The program will then have its instruction about how to teach tailored to specific subjects areas; for example, a future science teacher will focus on the best practices for teaching science, as compared to more general instruction. 

The program will require two periods of student contact — a student teaching period during the final spring semester, and a 10-day youth inquiry camp during the first summer semester. 

“We really want to get them in front of kids right away so they can decide whether or not they really want to do it,” Ewbank said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.