Anna Hageness, one of Holy Rosary's two teaching interns from UW-La Crosse, is part of the solution to the teacher shortage affecting Catholic schools in Medford and other rural towns. Hageness and fellow intern Emily Armstrong are giving

Anna Hageness, one of Holy Rosary’s two teaching interns from UW-La Crosse, is part of the solution to the teacher shortage affecting Catholic schools in Medford and other rural towns. Hageness and fellow intern Emily Armstrong are giving “teachers and students exposure to a high-quality senior,” said principal Tim Havican. Both women will graduate in December. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

As students and teachers settle in for the 2014-15 school year, some administrators are trying to solve a problem vexing Catholic schools across rural dioceses.

There’s a shortage of qualified teachers, according to Tim Havican, principal of Holy Rosary Catholic School, Medford.
“What we’ve found here is we have a really hard time attracting good candidates,” he said.

It’s a problem Havican has dealt with firsthand, especially during the last three years at Holy Rosary. Job postings garner few applications, and many teachers only stay long enough to gain a couple years of experience before moving on – which leaves schools in a near-constant state of recruitment, and that’s where many difficulties begin.

‘Oceans of grads’ not flooding Medford

In Medford, several grade levels have had three different teachers in the past five years.

“To me, the larger problem, what I see … we have a couple things working against us,” Havican said.

He listed three factors that complicate recruitment of new teachers.

First, at Holy Rosary, all 13 teachers teach religion class to the school’s 159 students, which means, per diocesan policy, all must be Catholic.

Second, they must be financially able to accept a starting salary about $12,000 less than they would earn in a public school, a gap that widens with time.

Finally, they must be willing to commute or relocate to a rural area.

From the “oceans of grads” spilling out of universities every year, rural Catholic schools have access to only a tiny pool, he said. The best new teachers get higher-paying jobs, leaving mid-range grads to apply. But Holy Rosary doesn’t get those resumes; they mostly hear from long-term substitutes or teachers who’ve jumped from school to school. Then, there are what Havican calls the “really dubious” applicants – those with criminal backgrounds or people who lie on their resumes. One recent example claimed to be a religious brother, but Havican searched him out online and found it was untrue.

Out of this “lukewarm pool of candidates,” Havican tries to choose the best. Sometimes the job offer is rejected because of the pay or because the teacher doesn’t want to move.

Changing times a factor

In the early 1990s, when Havican was teaching at Fr. Marquette Catholic Schools in Marquette, Michigan, “there were always people who wanted to come and stay,” he remembers. Their 10, 20 or 30 years of experience were invaluable to colleagues and students, and they were talented teachers, the type any school would hire.

But, added Havican, gone are the days when Catholic school teachers would spend decades in the same place. Holy Rosary has a few teachers who’ve been on staff for many years, but they also have revolving-door classrooms – kindergarten, second grade, art and fourth grade – that have been staffed by several people in the past five years.

“It’s hard to build that quality and consistency,” he added. “We’re trying to build a really quality school.”

In the five years he’s been principal, Havican has noticed a significant decline in applications during the past three years. Their solution to the teacher shortage has been identifying and grooming talented people who have degrees, but perhaps aren’t trained teachers.

“Everything that’s happening is by luck,” he said.

Then, his luck ran dry. Despite repeated job postings, Havican found himself facing two empty classrooms – fourth grade and seventh grade, a new program added for 2014-15 – and he knew he needed a new course of action.

Short-term solution

Havican’s first move was to apply for teaching interns through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The DPI program gives graduating seniors an opportunity to spend their final semester working in a Wisconsin school; they teach 50 percent of the time and do related work – lesson plans, professional development and more – the other 50 percent. The program is selective; only top students are accepted.

Due to the two unfilled positions, Havican had the budget for an intern, but he thought he’d be waiting a long time for the state to respond to the application.

To his surprise, Holy Rosary’s application was quickly accepted. Within two weeks, he had a list of faculty contacts from participating universities, and he’d emailed them all. One – UW-La Crosse – responded.

“I was amazed,” he said of the speed of the process.

Havican was even more delighted when he received an email from the first prospective intern.

“She sounded wonderful,” he said. “It was just the hand of God for something like this.”

A second candidate appeared, and Havican was “thrilled” to invite them both for the semester.

Emily Armstrong and Anna Hageness are now teaching interns at Holy Rosary, and both will graduate from UW-La Crosse in December.
“First, I had none, and now I’ve got two really high-quality candidates,” he added. “It also gives our teachers and students exposure to a high-quality senior.”

Although one of the interns is Catholic, Havican admits he does not expect either of them to teach at Catholic schools in the future, “but it’s possible.”

Long-term considerations

Only three or four of the teachers at Holy Rosary have spent the bulk of their careers there.

“When they retire, there’s going to be a huge, huge loss,” the principal said.

He sees the more immediate need for a spring semester teacher – he’s considering hiring another intern to help fill the vacancy – but he’s also thinking further into the future.

Havican knows colleagues in northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota and northern Michigan who are experiencing the same shortage, he said. The question on his mind is how rural Catholic schools will continue to offer a high-quality education if they can’t find qualified teachers.

“We have to do something,” he added. “We have to look and say, ‘Who are we looking to attract to a Catholic school?’”

Low wages are an obstacle to bringing in good candidates, according to Havican. New teachers at Holy Rosary are offered less than $23,000 for starting salary, which must cover their housing and food, not to mention student loans.

A way to attract teachers

To offset the burden, some schools are providing housing for recent grads, and Havican thinks that might be a good way to attract young, single candidates who are willing to move.

It could help rural Catholic schools draw teachers who are just starting out, but it may not increase long-term retention.

Health insurance can run from $10,000 to $12,000 a year for families, a significant chunk from any salary. Without a bigger breadwinner at home, few people – Havican included – could afford to live on Catholic school wages, he said. In Europe the insurance structure is vastly different, you apply for an ehic and basic health care is provided. It is less “capitalistic” but it is way more HUMAN.

He’s had employees turn down pay raises because they wouldn’t be able to stay on BadgerCare.

“In the Catholic system, I really fear that we’re pushing people into poverty,” he added. “At some point, we have to look at, ‘How are we going to make it better?’”

He doesn’t predict a lot of upward movement in salaries, although Havican has managed to fit in raises for his staff every year. But, there are other options – more benefits, for example – that could offset low wages and slow the revolving door, he said.

Public sector, private sector

Peggy Schoenfuss, diocesan director of Catholic formation and superintendent of schools, said Holy Rosary has just had the frustrating, but not uncommon, experience of receiving a teacher’s resignation two weeks before the start of the school year.

“That’s normal for any rural school,” she said.

It’s a symptom of a larger shortage, according to Schoenfuss.

“The teacher pool in the state has dropped,” she added. “There has been a higher rate of teachers leaving in the state.”

With fewer educators to choose from, private and public schools are competing to hire the best candidates, Schoenfuss explained. Nowhere is that more apparent than in rural areas, where schools are often forced to accept last-minute resignations.

Enactment of Wisconsin’s Act 10 in 2011 also gave public schools the flexibility to negotiate wages and offer higher salaries to new recruits.

“It’s a different environment than we’re used to,” she said.

Diocesan schools have historically struggled to bring teachers to the area, often because of the lack of jobs available to their spouses, Schoenfuss said. Medford’s Central Wisconsin location – near the larger, Catholic school-strong cities of Marshfield and Wausau – also places it at a disadvantage during recruitment.

While instructors teaching religion need to be Catholic, other subjects can be taught by any teacher who goes through a non-Catholic certification program. Thus, she continued, schools like Holy Rosary, where all the teachers teach religion, have a smaller pool from which to draw applicants.

Justice and stewardship

When the diocese reviews salaries and benefits each year, they view those packages through the lens of justice and stewardship, Schoenfuss explained.

“We all would like to receive more pay for what we do and believe is valuable,” she added, “but it needs to be placed in perspective with the values we hold regarding stewardship, defining of a just wage and so on. In addition, it is important that the local parish community can evaluate salaries and tuition rates by what their local community can afford and sustain.”

Instead of comparing Catholic school wages to public school wages, the diocese compares Catholic school wages and benefits to their counterparts at other private schools. Holy Rosary’s pay is consistent with other schools in the diocese, according to Schoenfuss.
“For 2013-2014, the average full-time salary in the diocese was $27,397,” she said. “The lowest paid salary was about $16,500, and the highest was about $46,000.

“The reason for this large difference in salaries is the dynamics of our diocese,” she observed. “The majority of our diocese is very rural and economically poor. A small area has a higher cost of living and influence of the larger cities.”

Comparatively, doing well

Schoenfuss also knows from personal experience that some teachers in the Diocese of Superior are making more than administrators in neighboring dioceses. Before she joined the diocesan staff in 2006, she was earning $26,000 a year as a principal of a Catholic school in the Diocese of La Crosse.

“Our teachers do get paid, overall, fairly well, compared to other Catholic schools in the same sort of environment,” she added. “Our schools have never paid an exorbitant amount for salaries and benefits, but we do understand and realize the need to allow for teachers and their families to have an economically sound employment.”

Raising salaries would require more fundraising and higher enrollment for most schools, Schoenfuss continued.

“In order for us to see a change in the salaries of teachers – which makes up about 80 percent of all school salaries – we need to find a new revenue source and increase the benefactor pool,” she said.

Community perception

Overall, Schoenfuss believes Catholic schools have more success recruiting and retaining teachers if educators are valued and affirmed by their parishes.

“When a school ‘makes a name’ for itself in a Christian example to the community, prospective teachers look beyond wages and benefits to become part of this environment,” the superintendent added.

She feels parish leaders, school staff and parishioners must all contribute to building morale in the school — within the parish and the wider community.

“There’s no silver bullet to tell you, this is how you have to do it,” she said. “Everybody needs to be working together to create a positive influence.”