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Two Pine Island Elementary teachers set to retire

Pine Island Elementary teachers Mark Aarsvold and Dorothy Walston are retiring at the end of the school year, taking their decades of experience with them as they head off to the next chapters of their lives.

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Pine Island Elementary School teacher Mark Aarsvold is retiring at the end of the school year.
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PINE ISLAND — "The kids."

That's the answer when Mark Aarsvold and Dorothy Walston are asked what they'll miss the most next year.

The Pine Island Elementary teachers are retiring at the end of the school year, taking their decades of experience with them as they head off to the next chapters of their lives.

Aarsvold is looking forward to spending more time in Mexico when he takes a mission trip to build houses. He's traveled south of the border each of the last four years during MEA break, but not had the time to hang out and get to know the culture. Having been raised for four years in Brazil during his teens, taking time to experience the culture will be a big part of retirement, he said.

That, and his grandchildren who live near Des Moines, Iowa.

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"I plan on some long weekends, spending time with them," he said.

Walston, a special education teacher, also plans to travel once her days at Pine Island are done. She and her husband are learning German for a trip this summer.

"We're going to Austria," she said. "We've been there two years ago. We'll go and work for a couple of weeks then go to Venice and back to tour Vienna."

In between, there will be time for quilting, reading and, like Aarsvold, the grandkids.

What she won't miss is the paperwork.

"You take a lot home," Walston said. "It requires a lot of work after hours." Not that she minded all of it. The learning for her autism certification was interesting, and she hopes to keep learning even in retirement.

'We are left with a void'

Pine Island Elementary Principal Cindy Hansen said it is that dedication to learning, and the knowledge and wisdom of the pair that she will miss.

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"The collective wisdom of our veteran staff is priceless," she said. "Their life and teaching experience give them a big-picture perspective on education, kids, and the world."

That perspective helps guide the school — especially their colleagues.

Aarsvold has 37 years of experience in the classroom, the last 17 in Pine Island where he retires as a fourth-grade teacher. Walston has taught for more than 20 years total, and she has been a special education teacher since 2005.

Hansen said Walston is especially hard to replace, a sentiment echoed by Superintendent Tammy Berg-Beniak.

"Any time we have veteran teachers retire, we are left with a void," the superintendent said. "It is certainly a challenge to find qualified candidates when a specific license is required, specifically in the area of special education."

Minnesota has struggled for years to address teacher shortages but hasn't found a consistent solution. Demands for science, math and special needs teachers have leaped, but the supply has yet to catch up. Despite the state's increasing diversity, the teaching pool remains overwhelmingly white.

Attempts to ease shortages by tinkering with the state teacher licensing system have fallen short. The Minnesota legislative auditor's office in March criticized the system as "confusing" and "broken."

An MPR News analysis of state data shows teacher turnover is higher in smaller districts. While just under half the state's teachers work in districts of fewer than 300 teachers, since 2010 those districts have accounted for more than 60 percent of the teachers who left for other districts.

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A 2013 legislative audit of Minnesota's special education program devoted a whole section to paperwork burdens and suggested the Education Department work to reduce them. Last year the Legislature mandated that reduction.

The department took some steps, including reducing the number of documents it checks when it monitors school districts. But requirements are set out in law, and some Minnesota-specific requirements go beyond what's federally required.

Bonuses for hires

How hard is it these days to find special education teachers? Cherie Johnson understands the competition, and the costs, as well as anyone.

She directs the Goodhue County Education District, a cooperative of six southeastern Minnesota school districts that shares some services, like classes for high-needs special education kids.

Johnson has a facility most teachers would envy: a big red-brick building up a small hill outside Red Wing that opened last year with floor-to-ceiling windows and freshly painted hallways.

But in the fierce competition for special needs teachers, money talks right now.

On a recent day as she watched a dodgeball game, Johnson rattled off a handful of nearby school districts she says will give qualified special ed teachers a $15,000 boost on the salary grid.

Districts increasingly offer bonuses right off the bat to new hires, she added: "$5,000 signing bonuses. I've even seen a $10,000 signing bonus."

She said she's had a position open all year without a single applicant.

GCED has not gone down the bonus route, yet, "but certainly we're going to have to consider everything that the entities around us are using."

Closer to Med City

For Pine Island, being close to Rochester helps, Berg-Beniak said.

"There are many rural districts reporting few to zero applicants in a number of areas," she said. "We have been extremely fortunate to have outstanding candidates; however, the reality is that this could change for all districts."

Mark Roubinek oversees such a district in St. Charles. The soon-to-retire superintendent said it can be hard to find teachers in specialties ranging from agriculture and industrial technology to speech pathology, and math or science.

"The regular job sector really seems to gobble these up by offering higher wage and benefit packages," he said. "There are cases where students graduate with a teaching degree and go into another vocation because the starting pay may be double or more than what they would receive as a teacher."

Again, being close to Rochester helps, but Roubinek said it can be hard to get teachers out to rural districts.

"We may have received 100, 40 or 15 applicants for various jobs 15 years ago," he said. "Today, those same positions may draw 22, 11 and four applicants."

That means finding that teacher with experience can be more difficult as well when replacing a long-term educator.

"Accruing decades of knowledge and experience is impossible to fully replace (when experienced teachers retire)," said Red Wing Superintendent Karsten Anderson.

Every time a teacher leaves, that creates a change in the dynamic of the school and the grade-level team or department, Anderson said.

"We value the wisdom our more experienced teachers bring to school daily," he said. "But we also value the fresh perspectives and different experiences that newcomers share with the staff."

Walston said spending time with her colleagues also ranks high on what she will miss.

"You miss sharing ideas and brainstorming, and being there to support one another because we are a team," she said.

Aarsvold said agreed, adding with a laugh that his younger colleagues certainly bring something to the table.

"I'm definitely the dinosaur of the bunch," he said. "They help me with technology, and I help them with experience.

"I will miss them so much," Aarsvold said. "They are good dedicated people to these kids."

Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this report.

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Pine Island Elementary School teacher Mark Aarsvold is retiring at the end of the school year.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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