Across the road from a clapboard home on Mechanic Street, off Route 12 in Jefferson County, a few miles north of the Kraft foods plant in Lowville, amid the seemingly endless fields of corn, past mammoth windmills towering over verdant fields and just around the corner from where, possibly, the best goulash and mac and cheese in northern New York is served, you see a large, singular building that makes up the entire school district in Copenhagen.
That it sits, essentially, smack dab in the center of town is, perhaps, serendipitous.
But in this community of roughly 800 people south of Watertown, where Amish buggies travel on the same roads as pickup trucks, farm tractors and the occasional Army vehicle from Fort Drum, the center of town is exactly where this K–12 school belongs.
"The district is the heart and soul of this community," says John Cain, president of the Copenhagen Teachers Association. "There is a real sense of family here that extends deep" into the village.
Visit the Copenhagen Central School on any given day and that sense of family is evident: The tight-knit staff has forged a far-reaching support network for both young teachers and students, who often talk of their "community."
But, as is often the case with family, the district now faces a struggle — a concept not exactly foreign to an economically disadvantaged region such as this. As baby-boomer teachers retire, and more educators leave the profession for other reasons, enrollments in teacher education programs have plummeted in New York State and nationwide. Copenhagen has been impacted particularly hard. In the past, the district would receive upward of 200 applications each summer from those hoping to land a teaching position. Today, the number of applicants has nose-dived into the single digits.
"Young students have been pushed away from the profession. There are fewer and fewer students choosing to pursue education as a career," Cain says. "We're a small, rural district and we can't possibly compete with larger districts when it comes to salaries. But we can offer a lot that large districts can't. Teachers here are not just a number.
"Every single one of us works with kids in grades K–12 daily. And our impact on them extends well beyond the classroom. We know which kids need to be fed or clothed. We have a direct impact on kids' lives. We leave here tired each day, but we leave here satisfied, knowing that we made a difference."
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene T. DiBrango, who oversees the statewide union's Research and Educational Services Department, says the teacher shortage is the result of "a perfect storm" of contributing factors. Chief among them is the fact that, while the average age of teachers in the state is 48, enrollment in teacher education programs in New York since 2009–10 has decreased 49 percent — from more than 79,000 students to about 40,000 students two years ago, based on latest figures.
In response to the shortage, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has said finding ways to recruit and retain teachers must be a priority. But rather than wait for the state to take action, the Copenhagen TA — working with NYSUT, its parent union — has decided to act on its own, with members from the CTA's Local Action Project taking the lead.
Over the summer, LAP team members gathered at the school to shoot a series of videos highlighting what's great about teaching in Copenhagen — the first step in what will become an ongoing communications effort to boost recruitment in the district.
"We are being proactive," Cain says. "We can accept things the way they are, or we can fight to make things better."
Lori Griffin, a Copenhagen English teacher who sparked the LAP team's teacher-recruitment effort, says the school is too important to the community to give in or give up.
"We really mean it when we say that this school is the heart and soul of the community," she says. "We are not going to close (as a result of the teacher shortage). We are not going to merge or become part of some conglomerate. And we don't ever want to be mediocre. We are a diamond in the rough and we want people to see that."
Marissa Kerins is a new teacher who joined the district at the beginning of this year. She sensed the "close-knit and supportive family" environment at Copenhagen during her interview.
"I was immediately blown way. I could tell there were support systems in place that would set me up for success," Kerins says. "I've never felt so welcomed in a place … The community nature of the district really drew me to it."
On a muggy morning in August, that support system to which Kerins refers is on full display. Though the start of the new school year is more than two weeks away, the Copenhagen school is bustling with activity as young teachers work with veteran educators as part of the district's mentoring program.
"We work really hard to make people feel welcome," says Nicole Lee, a special education teacher who heads the district's mentoring program. "This is your home, your family … and we work really hard in school and out of school to build that relationship."
Griffin, who also serves as the CTA secretary and regional political action coordinator, says the small district makes a conscious effort to think big when it comes to educating its students. School officials, for example, aggressively pursue grants that provide students with technological resources unheard of in most districts of its size.
"Our technology program is among the top in northern New York," says Griffin. "We pride ourselves on going above and beyond the core subjects. And we see our kids as global citizens. We work very hard to help them recognize there is no limit to what they can be."
That philosophy is what brought librarian and technology teacher Krisha Green back to Copenhagen after leaving for a job in another district.
"I think our students fare better than most because we work hard here to provide them with not just technology but the ideas to pursue whatever dreams they have," says Green. She spent three years teaching at a high school elsewhere before returning to Copenhagen where she can interact with kindergartners to graduating seniors.
"I missed the community at Copenhagen," she says. "It's where I want to be. It's where I feel the greatest impact. I get to have my hands in a lot of places."