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Wave of New Teachers Part of School Budget Solution
Kalispell’s School District 5 hires 33 new instructors
Patty Wallace looks through teaching material in her French classroom at Flathead High School. Wallace, who graduated from Flathead in 2003, found out the day before that she was hired to teach. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Patty Wallace made the literal transformation from student to teacher last week as she walked into Flathead High School.

“I was hired just yesterday,” Wallace said after getting her school identification and parking pass squared away on Aug. 20. “I’m going to have students in my classroom next Wednesday.”

The Kalispell resident is the latest addition to the high school’s French language department, hired last minute after a resignation created an opening.

Wallace is a Flathead High alum and graduated from the University of Montana last spring. As she walked the halls to meet her department head for the first time, she pointed out her old locker.

In her new classroom, which was still waiting to be organized, Wallace sat with her coffee and a pile of binders that almost reached eye level and appraised her new situation.

“I had French in this classroom,” she said.

Initially, Wallace had planned to substitute teach for School District 5 this year, as a way to stay familiar with the administration should there be a retirement the following year.

“I hadn’t expected there to be an opening in the French department,” Wallace said. “I was very pleasantly surprised when the opportunity came to just jump right in.”

For students, the first day of school often brings a bit of the unknown and the anticipation of fresh challenges and experiences. These feelings also apply to the teachers ready to greet them when they walk in the classroom, especially those beginning their first official teaching job.

Kalispell’s SD5 has 33 new hires this year. For 22 teachers in that group, the 2010-2011 school year represents their first year of experience in their respective positions.

It was no fluke that two-thirds of the latest hires are new teachers, SD5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle said.

“We posted our jobs this year with four years or less experienced preferred,” Schottle said.

Facing an $800,000 shortfall, the district looked to trim its biggest expense: personnel costs. To do this without leaving open positions, the district offered retirement bonuses and hired teachers lower on the pay scale, Schottle said.

This resulted in more job openings than SD5 normally has, she said, giving them an opportunity to diversify the staff.

Twenty-nine of the new hires this year have four years or less experience in their field, according to SD5 data. Having fewer years of experience in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean the teachers came straight from college, Schottle said. It could mean they are switching teaching fields or have been out of the profession for a while.

Widespread vacancies also gave the district the opportunity to encourage new teachers to apply. Typically, when a job in a desirable district opens up, first-time teachers tend to write it off because of anticipated competition from veterans, Schottle said.

Preferring fewer years of experience does not mean every vacant position was filled with a brand new instructor, Schottle said. If the right fit couldn’t be found, the district looked elsewhere in the application pool.

“We had a nice cross-section this year,” Schottle said.

Heather Dalla Betta, recently hired as a kindergarten teacher at Russell Elementary, said she thought the district was thorough and thoughtful during the hiring process.

“I think they’re trying to be fiscally responsible,” Dalla Betta said, because they hired less experienced but quality staff instead of cutting supplies or other areas of the budget.

While most of the new staff may have fewer years than their veteran colleagues, many of them are familiar with the SD5 school system.

Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro noted several of his new hires did their student teaching within the district or they are transitioning from another local career to teaching.

Many of the high school’s new staff will also help with extracurricular activities, which Fusaro said helps create a more cohesive community for the students.

“We obviously want to find the best teachers possible, but we also want to find teachers who can help us out with our activities,” Fusaro said. “The more that they’re connected to the school, then obviously they’re going to get kids connected.”

New teachers also bring enthusiasm and ideas, Fusaro said, which helps invigorate the students as well as the returning staff.

Other K-12 school districts in the valley also hired new teachers, but none to the extent of the Kalispell schools. School District 44 in Whitefish hired two new teachers, but their few years of experience have nothing to do with saving money, Superintendent Jerry House said.

In Bigfork, School District 38 Superintendent Cynthia Clary said her district is facing a tight budget, but her new hires were not part of the money-saving equation.

“Their experience and corresponding salary was never an issue,” Clary said.

SD38 did have to make some cuts to balance a budget shortfall, but the district tried to make them with the least amount of impact on instruction, she said.

School District 6 Superintendent Michael Nicosia said his schools also faced tough budget decisions, but hiring four new teachers did not factor in to cost savings.

“We made our cuts and did what we had to do in order to fit our expenses with our revenue,” Nicosia said.

Tight budgets are a stark reality for valley schools, but excitement for the first day of school trumped money concerns in the halls last week.

Gretchen Miller, the new eighth-grade language arts teacher at Kalispell Middle School, said she has worked hard to make her classroom feel like home. Miller comes to SD5 with three years of experience teaching high school in Washington before moving to Columbia Falls with her husband last year.

The days ahead of school starting are nerve-wracking, Miller acknowledged, because she won’t get a good feel for her classroom until her eighth-graders take their seats.

“When the students are in the room I let go and get in the flow,” Miller said. “I do what I do best.”

She took a couple of years to get her Master’s degree from Gonzaga, but is ready to make the switch from student to teacher again.

“I’m trying to set up an environment where I feel comfortable and where my students feel comfortable, where we can learn together,” Miller said. “I’m really excited to get back into the classroom.”
 
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