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One employee works as cook, tutor and driver as staff shortages strain Colorado schools

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SAN LUIS — By 6 a.m. most weekdays, Crystal Quintana is walking through the kitchen doors of Centennial School District R-1 to tackle the first tasks of the morning, which sometimes means molding homemade dough into cinnamon rolls or wrestling that same dough into slabs for square pizzas. Other times, dozens of chicken patties wait to be laid across sheet pans while 7-pound cans of baked beans sit ready to be opened and emptied. 

Twelve or 13 hours later, she’ll head home to tend to her family’s pigs, cows and horses.

The minutes in between hurl Quintana in a blur of different directions: As the food service director for the rural district, she feeds about 160 students with as many meals made from scratch as her team can manage. She also oversees an after-school tutoring program for kids falling behind in at least one class and runs a Friday learning program for students who are trying to make up credits. And Quintana, who lives about 8 miles away in San Acacio, usually then shuttles several kids home, driving into remote stretches of the southern Colorado district to drop them off one by one.

And that’s all if the day goes as planned.

“I just help wherever they need me,” said Quintana, who also takes over bus routes when no one else can.

Stretching across multiple jobs has become a kind of chaotic norm for her and many other educators and school employees in Colorado, where chronic staff shortages have spread more work across fewer people. While Colorado continues to face teacher shortages, many schools also desperately need more school bus drivers, food service workers, counselors and paraprofessionals. 

a women in black shirt and baseball camp inside a kitchen
a women in black shirt and baseball cap in the back of the kitchen with a food tray in front of her

Crystal Quintana prepares chicken sandwiches for lunch, Feb. 6, in the school’s kitchen in San Luis. She feeds about 160 students with as many meals made from scratch as her team can manage. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

For the 2022-23 school year, 1,465 support roles needed to be filled — including school social workers, counselors and psychologists, according to data from the state education department. Of those open positions, 257 were left unfilled for the school year while 153 were filled using a shortage mechanism, such as what the state calls a temporary educator eligibility authorization, which allows support staff who qualify with a bachelor’s or higher degree to work while they complete their education program. And the proportion of vacant support positions jumped by nearly 34% from the previous year.

“In the face of the educator shortage, we’re using those individuals very extensively for all kinds of things including classroom support and sometimes substitute teaching when they’re eligible,” said Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education. “We’re asking them to pull double duty.”

Support staff positions like food service workers, bus drivers and school counselors keep a school humming, often by swooping in alongside teachers to fill critical positions that directly impact children’s school day, O’Neil said. That includes overseeing drop-offs so that elementary schoolers arrive safely inside the building, staffing lunch in the cafeteria or answering phones in the front office when office staff is gone and also staying after school to assist with tutoring or lead student clubs.

“Not unlike educators, they have more responsibility on their shoulders and become kind of those multitaskers that support our students,” O’Neil said.

That can take a harsh toll, she added.

Day after day of filling in for a class and not having time to even gulp down lunch escalates stress “and will push you into either a new career or a new opportunity,” O’Neil said.

“A bouncy ball” that never slows down

Quintana, who moved from Colorado Springs to the much sleepier San Luis Valley at age 15 and graduated high school from Centennial School District, has worked for the district since 2005 and covered a range of roles — from school suspension monitor to librarian to the superintendent’s secretary. She wants to retire in 10 years but worries it’ll be too hard to leave, particularly if the staff shortages that she said have worsened since the pandemic continue to strain the district.

“You get easily drawn in with no applicants,” Quintana, 45, said, noting that she started managing the after-school tutoring program after no one applied for the job.

She finds herself struggling to say no to extra duties that pop up, mostly because of the students she feeds, tutors and transports home.

“We want all our kids to excel,” said Quintana, whose grandkids, nieces and nephews attend school in the district after her and her husband’s five kids all graduated from there.

She decided to stay in the San Luis Valley as a teenager because of the quiet and stillness it gave her, miles away from the bustling city life she had known. But her days now keep her moving at a dizzying pace. By 1 p.m., she collapses into her office chair to turn her attention to a stack of paperwork, including planning school menus and filing records that track meals made, ingredients and number of students served. By then, half her day has elapsed, packed down to the minute with preparing breakfast and lunch, dishing up meals for students, tallying how many come through the serving line and cleaning the kitchen before she then gobbles up lunch beside her kitchen staff.

a women in black shirt and baseball cap sits in a desk
a couple with black shirts hug each other while standing in the hallway

LEFT: Quintana checks the students schedule while planning the school menus, including the ingredients for each meal served, Feb. 6, at her desk near the kitchen area. RIGHT: Later in the day, Quintana receives a hug from her husband, Robert, a math teacher, in middle of their shifts in the school’s hallway. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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