- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah lawmakers are working on a $2 million pilot program to attract and keep teachers in remote public schools near American Indian reservations, where turnover can top 50 percent.

Grants would help attract or recruit teachers with incentives like signing bonuses or pay increases. Eligible schools must have a student population that’s at least 29 percent American Indian.

“Most of these reservations are pretty remote. Not everybody wants to be five hours from a metropolitan area,” Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said.

Van Tassell plans to run legislation next year that directs Utah education officials to set up the five-year program.

Officials hope the effort will help improve graduation rates and test scores for American Indian students, which lag behind rates for their white, Asian, black and Latino peers.

“The stability of teachers has a lot of effect on kids,” Van Tassell said.

The move to close that gap is part of a broader push to improve economic conditions in tribal communities, Van Tassell said.

Ideally, Utah officials hope to recruit more Native American teachers to schools on or near reservations, but Van Tassell said the grants will go to drawing and keeping teachers of any ethnic background.

In addition to the $2 million teacher program, his bill sets aside $20,000 for programs allowing native languages, mainly those of smaller tribes, to be taught in schools as second language courses.

At least eight other states have set up programs similar to the Utah proposal to recruit or keep teachers in Native American communities. National grant programs are available as well, but Van Tassell said his proposal would be a first for Utah.

Van Tassell said if officials can point to signs of success at the end of the five-year program, they may expand it.

A large share of the program’s funds would go to southeastern Utah’s San Juan School District, he said. The district’s student population is 54 percent American Indian and some schools sit on the Navajo reservation.

San Juan School District superintendent Douglas Wright said it can be particularly difficult to attract and keep teachers at some of his rural schools.

Teachers can’t purchase homes on the Navajo reservation and instead live in district apartment-style housing.

He said if Utah lawmakers approve the grant, nine of his district’s 12 schools would qualify. He said the money would help them boost teacher pay and offer signing or retention bonuses.

But, he said, “Ultimately, I’m not sure that it’s going to end up in people spending 20 and 30 years in some of these schools just due to some of the logistical issues.”

The bigger problem, Wright said, is that schools everywhere are having trouble attracting and retaining teachers because of stagnant pay and the demands placed on educators.

“Until you solve that larger problem of making education a profession that people what to go into again, it’s just exacerbating an issue like ours,” he said.

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Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice


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