Stacie Scott,
Walls of red rock line the road to Blanding, San Juan County, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.

ANETH, San Juan County — Their commute starts before sunrise, and much of the year they get home at dusk or as night falls.

While on the job, teachers at Montezuma Creek Elementary School face working conditions to which most public school teachers in Utah would be completely unaccustomed.

The school, near Four Corners, is remote and in an area that struggles with extreme poverty, high rates of absenteeism, homelessness, substance use disorders and frequent turnover of teachers.

In San Juan County's communities to the north — Blanding, Monticello and La Sal — about half of the district's teachers have been in the classroom 14-plus years, said Ron Nielson, elementary supervisor for the San Juan School District.

"Down south at Montezuma Creek, Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary and at Bluff, the average at those three schools is 7 percent of our teachers have been in the classroom 14-plus years," Nielson said.

"It didn’t take a lot of real deep analysis to realize we had a retention problem and even to some degree attracting the right talent."

In an effort to stem turnover and improve academic achievement, the school district three years ago launched a pilot project to pay significantly higher salaries to effective veteran educators selected as lead teachers at Montezuma Creek Elementary School.

Depending on a teacher's years of experience and educational background, a mid-career teacher could be eligible for yearly compensation of $80,000 under the district's Quality Teaching Incentive Program, or Q-TIP for short.

"It goes way beyond just your salary. If you do that for three years, it can make a substantial difference in your retirement. That’s what we’re hoping," Nielson said.

Under the program, lead teachers have led small teams of teachers who analyze student data, refine assessments and develop strategies to help bring struggling students up to grade level.

They also mentor less experienced teachers.

"If you have a very veteran member of the team, it’s very helpful when a new teacher has questions, when they need help and support, they can turn to someone," Nielson said. "But if all four teachers in your professional learning community or both of you in the same grade level are first-year teachers and you’re struggling, it’s pretty hard to lean on the other person when you know they’re struggling just as much as you are."

Since the pilot started three years ago, all but one lead teacher has remained at the school. Turnover has also been reduced, but more importantly, student achievement has improved.

"After the first year, Montezuma Creek, by the state accountability system, went from an F to a C. We were really pleased with the data. We were really pleased with the growth scores, even just the morale," Nielson said.

The program was launched with a grant, and administrators now seek to expand the effort to other schools, hoping higher salaries will entice seasoned educators to become lead teachers at schools in the southern portion of the 8,000-square-mile school district.

The goal is to hire lead teachers in both elementary and secondary schools using a combination of school- and district-level funds.

"We’re hoping to attract a deep and competitive pool. In the elementary, we’re looking to place at least five. We already have four at Montezuma Creek, so that puts us at nine," Nielson said.

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Amanda Bouchard, who teaches kindergarten, said she was considering leaving the teaching profession when the district opened up the opportunity to apply for a lead teacher position.

A bigger paycheck helped, but Bouchard said the initiative also acknowledged that teaching at Montezuma Creek "is not the same as teaching at a school in the suburbs."'

Many schoolchildren live with grandparents or extended families.

Those who live with their parents on the Navajo reservation have responsibilities beyond doing their homework. Their parents, who also drive long distances to work, may not be home when the children are dropped off by the school bus.

Some students have chores to do when they get home, such as hauling water or feeding livestock. They may be expected to cook dinner and care for siblings until their parents get home.

"For some families, that's more important than doing homework," Bouchard said.

But the initiative helped keep her in a profession she loves.

"Everyone is super professional. They're just the salt of the earth. They're great people to work for and with," Bouchard said.

An added bonus is "living in one of the most beautiful places there is. When you hike these canyons, you realize you can live your whole life and never see it all," she said.

* * *

Teri Lindsay, another lead teacher at the school, said she lived for a year in the apartments at White Horse High School that the school district leases to teachers who teach in the area.

Lindsay said she immensely enjoyed that experience, describing the housing as modern and well cared for, but it meant her daughter had a long drive to and from school. Lindsay now commutes from Blanding, an hour's drive each way.

Much of the year it means leaving for school in dark and arriving home at dusk or later.

"In the winter, we don't ever see the light of day except at recess," she said.

Yet, Lindsay, who relocated from St. George, says the past few years have been the most rewarding of her teaching career.

To enhance her skills with students whose families' primary language is Navajo, Lindsay earned an endorsement in English language learning in a program offered by the school district.

The lead teachers have received enhanced training in leadership and more effective use of student data. They also develop two 90-day plans each year intended to maximize the faculty's effectiveness as educators and enhance outcomes for students.

"Even being given the opportunity to be a leader is a big deal. You learn so much when you're in that position," she said.

Mostly, Lindsay feels like she's making a significant difference in her students' lives.

"At the end of the day, some of my kids cry when it's time to go home," she said. "I feel more needed here than I have been in other places."

* * *

Linzi Freestone, who teaches fourth grade and is the lead teacher for third and fourth grades, transferred to Montezuma Creek from within the northern part of the school district.

Even though Freestone lives and taught just an hour away, children at her current school have far more complex lives.

"Our students deal with really big things. In my class right now, I have three students who lost a parent in the past year," she said. Two died in car accidents, one by suicide.

"I've never taught a year when there wasn't at least one parent who was incarcerated," Freestone said.

When her students are dealing with such heavy personal matters, teaching fractions hardly seems the most important task at hand.

Like the time one of her students who had lost his mother told her that "today is her birthday."

Freestone took the boy outside, encouraged him to look up into the sky and wish his mother a happy birthday.

After doing that, he seemed at peace and able to settle down and concentrate on his lessons, she said.

"We work really hard, and sometimes it's super wearing, but I feel like I get closer to my students down here and feel way more appreciated by my students and my parents than I ever have," Freestone said.

* * *

Jenny Atcitty, who teaches sixth grade and is the only lead teacher at the school who was already teaching at Montezuma Creek, said she hopes that Q-TIP results in higher rates of teacher retention.

Atcitty said it takes time for tribal members to develop trust in people who come from outside the area to teach.

"Because there's such turnover, sometimes it takes a lot for our students to trust the teachers. They've seen a lot of teachers come and go," she said.

But Atcitty also understands that living in such a remote area with so little infrastructure is hard for many people to adjust to the distance and lack of amenities.

"The nearest grocery store is an hour away. We're near a gas station, but if you need food or other things, it's an hour's drive. That's really challenging for some people. There's no rec center or swimming pool, things a lot of people take for granted," she said.

But the area's beauty is unrivaled, and under the Q-TIP initiative, Atcitty said she believes Montezuma Creek's teachers have made great progress in helping students achieve on grade level.

After three years of the program, Atcitty said she has noticed a difference in students enrolled at the school since the initiative started.

"I definitely think I've noticed a lot more students coming into my class academically prepared and ready," she said. "It's challenging where we live because there's a lot of student turnover. It's not always the same core kids because kids move in and out. There's some kids I see and think, 'I wish you had been here the whole time.'

"I do see a lot of good things going on. Some of them are doing great. They're on grade level or above, and that's exciting to see."

* * *

Nielson, who is attempting to recruit more lead teachers as open positions are reclassified as Q-TIP positions, doesn't view the initiative as a silver bullet for teacher turnover, but he's convinced other students could benefit from the program.

"We’re really excited about what we’ve seen at Montezuma Creek. If we can duplicate that on other campuses of our most needy schools, it’s going to be a tremendous success," he said.

"There is no doubt the students at Montezuma Creek have learned at a higher level the last couple of years, and they have goals to go even higher. They want to be a B or an A school. I think they have an opportunity and chance to do that."