Teacher residency program, literacy intervention, advancing

By: - April 24, 2023 10:48 am

(Illustration by Getty Images)

Nine new teachers have signed contracts with school districts where they completed a pilot residency program, said Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts.

That’s a big deal in a state with a teacher shortage, and Barker said the program should continue.

Friday, Senate Finance and Claims heard House Bill 833, to address the teacher shortage. It also heard House Bill 352 to support a literacy program.

The year-long residency program have been funded with federal recovery money from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Office of Public Instruction wants it to continue in 2025 after those dollars expire.

The initial cohort counted 17 residents and the program aims to have 70, although Barker said it will probably have 60 in its first year. Nine of the 17 in the pilot signed contracts.

“There is some proven efficacy with this program to help our rural schools be able to fill those vacant teaching seats,” Barker said.

Barker spoke to the bill in Finance and Claims on Friday after he presented it Wednesday to the Senate Education and Natural Resources Committee, which approved it.

In illustrating the need, he said one school district in Carbon County has been unable to hire a teacher for six years.

It hired a cook, trained the cook to teach, and then hired the cook-turned-educator as a teacher under an emergency provision — probably not the best approach, Barker said.

He said the bill would provide state funding and require a local match in the form of housing or housing stipend.

The bill requests $2 million a year, which it estimates would fund $27,000 per resident. (The fiscal note outlines the costs as follows: a $14,000 stipend for the resident; $4,000 in tuition costs for an accredited teacher preparation program, converted to a loan if the teacher doesn’t teach in Montana after the residency, according to the bill; a $3,000 housing grant; and $6,000 for the mentoring teacher.)

In support of the bill, Jenny Murnane-Butcher, with Montanans Organized For Education, said the legislation offers a great opportunity to address a significant concern of parents and also to save districts recruitment money in the long run.

“Parents are very concerned right now about their schools being fully staffed,” Murnane-Butcher said. “We especially hear from our members in rural Montana.”

Sharyl Allen, with the Office of Public Instruction, said 952 positions at OPI are currently open, and more than 319 remained unfilled last year. OPI requested the bill.

“It is a challenge and an issue that we cannot sustain in our state to meet the needs of students,” said Allen, deputy superintendent.

Also sponsored by Barker, HB 352 would help children 4 years old up to second grade learn to read, and they’re currently having trouble. This bill also passed out of Senate Education last week to Finance and Claims.

Before third grade, Barker said children “learn to read,” but after third grade, they “read to learn.”

But if they haven’t gotten the handle of reading by third grade, they won’t be proficient in other subjects, and Barker said data show students need help.

Just 46% of students grades three through eight read at grade level currently, he said.

Barker said the bill would clean up current language on “exceptional circumstances” so 4-year-olds can be enrolled in kindergarten under certain specific conditions, which include intervention programs.

“This is really an opportunity for us to take a much more targeted approach to get more focused on early literacy,” Barker said.

The bill lists classroom-based programs, home-based programs, and a “jumpstart” program, or one running after one school year ends and before the next begins.

The program is voluntary for school districts to adopt, and it’s optional for parents to have their children screened, Barker said. If a child is assessed as being at risk, they’ll be eligible for intervention programs, including support at home.

The most recent fiscal note puts the cost at $1.6 million a year, although in a rebuttal, the sponsor said he believes the analysis is flawed and the bill could actually save the state money.

Rob Watson, with the School Administrators of Montana, said people think low reading proficiency is tied to the effects of COVID-19, but really, he’s seen the low numbers long before.

Then last spring, he said the number of students in third grade not reading at grade level reached 50%, higher than it’s been in previous years.

Children who don’t learn to read start having problems trying to learn other subjects, because they need to read to understand them, he said.

“This issue doesn’t stop in the third grade,” said Watson, who testified on behalf of the Coalition of Advocates for Montana Public Schools. “It really compounds itself all the way through middle school and high school.”

Sarah Piper, with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said people in her organization know how important it is to address literacy early, especially for a successful workforce later in their lives.

Caitlin Jensen, with Zero to Five Montana, said the bill is an investment.

Jensen said U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation data show for every $1 invested in early childhood education, $16 is returned in the form of lower special needs, higher grade level retention, improved health, lower incarceration rates, and future employment opportunities and outcomes.

“This bill will have tremendous positive impact on addressing critical early learning gaps in our state,” Jensen said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.