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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Retention and recruitment in a rural district: A new lens
Site tour leads to new strategies to support staffing
By Adina Sullivan-Marlow, Sheiveh Jones & Patrick Keeley | September | October 2022
Mountain Empire Unified School District is located about 40 miles east of San Diego. Beginning with the town of Descanso to the west, the Imperial County line to the east, Mount Laguna to the north, and the Mexican Border to the south, this area covers 660 square miles. There are many small, distinct and diverse communities with MEUSD including three Native American Reservations. The district consists of four elementary schools, two middle schools (combining into one and), one centrally located high school and alternative programs. The district provides busing to all students and families in the district. While there are a portion of students who are driven in private vehicles, nearly 90 percent of the students are bused to school.
MEUSD has always had a certain level of staff turnover, mostly due to driving distance to school sites, and a lower pay scale. The lower pay scale is partly due to enrollment imbalances at the various sites, which creates the need to have more teachers at certain sites, and transportation encroachment as nearly 7 percent of the district’s budget is dedicated to transportation. Many of the district’s certificated staff live 30 or more miles from their school sites. With the increased pressure placed on the school system causing some teachers to leave the profession, increased retirements throughout the state, and increased gas prices, the pressure on MEUSD has also increased. Larger school districts in the county have directly reached out at times to recruit teachers, itinerant certificated staff, and administrators from MEUSD sites to fill their vacancies, and there is a natural pull for some MEUSD staff to work closer to home without a long commute. At the same time, MEUSD has seen a notable decrease in applicants in teaching and administration positions, with some jobs sitting vacant for months.
MEUSD and the San Diego County Office of Education have partnered to address recruitment and retention issues in unique ways. Together, they are tapping into existing resources while using a more innovative approach to attract individuals from the community to education careers.
At a recent recruitment event, MEUSD brought members of its leadership team to connect with job seekers and share the story of their community in the hopes of attracting individuals to this quaint part of the county. Also at the event, Superintendent Patrick Keeley had an opportunity to share some of his challenges around recruitment to the SDCOE team. These challenges include cost of transportation and its impact on salaries, distance from suburban communities in the region and its impact on attracting employees, and limited resources, which impacts both recruitment and retention.
Just a few short weeks after this discussion, a team from SDCOE piled into three cars and formed a caravan that headed to MEUSD with the hope of learning more about the context of the community, including the experience of commuting to each of the school sites. Upon arriving, Superintendent Keeley and Director of Student Services and Special Education Bill Dennett welcomed the group with a pair of vans that they piled into and spent the next four hours on a narrated tour of the district. This is a regular practice that the district engages in when teaching people about the district and when engaging new employees. Touring the district allows for visitors and new employees to understand the complexities and challenges of the district, especially given its 660 square mile area. This tour included visits to the school sites, which were then followed by narrated tours by the principals. Principals had the opportunity to share their experiences in retaining staff and teachers. Most years, principals will have multiple openings at their sites. With the increased movement and opportunity from larger school districts in the suburban and city districts, some sites have experienced a turnover of nearly 40 percent of their teaching staff during the past two years.
What the visiting team discovered is that in this tight-knit community, classified employees are often from the community or nearby, and hence tend to stay. There are multiple American Indian reservations in this one district. Administrators at the school and district level know the students on a first-name basis at each of the school sites, instructional aides wear many hats, and border patrol has a strong presence. The visiting team also was able to see the challenges that transportation poses for the entire community. While transportation plays a vital role in safely transporting students to school, the time that some students spend on a bus each day can be up to an hour each way to school.
After the site visit, the SDCOE team debriefed on what they saw, what questions remained, and ideas/resources that could be leveraged to support recruitment and retention. They then met with Superintendent Keeley and together developed a plan to support the given context. This plan specifically targets classified employees and members of the community with both short-term and long-term plans. Creating more opportunities to grow for the staff who live locally will likely increase the number of certificated employees who live in the district.
With the increased movement and opportunity from larger school districts in the suburban and city districts, some sites have experienced a turnover of nearly 40 percent of their teaching staff during the past two years.
In the short term, classified employees will be supported to attain their teaching credentials with the goal of teaching within the district. This will be done in the following ways:
  • SDCOE will attend the first non-student day of school and provide an information session for classified employees. This information session will outline the requirements to become a teacher. Ongoing information sessions throughout the year will also be provided.
  • In addition to outlining the requirements, information about the resources available will be shared. These resources are designed to ensure they are successful in their journey to become a teacher and include free exam preparation, mentoring and advice throughout a credential program, access to the CTC’s Classified Employee Teacher Recruitment Grant, and access to the Golden State Teacher Grant.
  • Guaranteed admission to SDCOE’s teacher intern programs upon becoming intern eligible.
The long-term plan includes developing and sponsoring a future educator club at the high school campus that eventually spans down to middle school. SDCOE will provide modules that can be delivered during lunch time meetings including exploring the many careers in education, pathways to becoming a teacher, financial support available, and learning strategies on how to be a tutor. MEUSD believes that with the partnership and support of SDCOE, increased opportunities for classified employees to earn degrees and credentials, and a future educator club/program that there can be reduced teacher turnover in the district. Additionally, while MEUSD will always need to transport their students, the district is hopeful that the possibility of additional transportation funding from the state will mitigate the encroachment on the budget and will in turn lead to increases on the pay scale which will allow them to recruit and retain staff.

Adina Sullivan-Marlow is coordinator, Teacher Effectiveness - Human Resources, with SDCOE. Sheiveh Jones, Ed.D., is Executive Director, Teacher Effectiveness and Preparation, SDCOE. Patrick Keeley, Ed.D. is superintendent, Mountain Empire Unified School District.
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