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Recruiting & Hiring

The 20-Mile Radius: Why Distance Matters to K-12 Hiring and Retention

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When trying to fill teaching positions, what can school districts do that goes beyond simply posting jobs in more locations? Dr. Jon Isaacson, Superintendent of Hillsboro R-III School District in Missouri, shares some insightful strategies for hiring and, just as importantly, retaining teachers – and the data he looks at to make some of these decisions.
In this conversation with Frontline Education’s own Collin Osburn, Dr. Isaacson considers:

  • His view of the current state of hiring in education
  • Why it’s crucial for districts to focus on the things they can control, not the things they can’t
  • What a 20-mile radius around his district means for hiring and retention


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Episode Transcript

Ryan Estes: Welcome to the Field Trip podcast from Frontline Education. My name is Ryan Estes, and today we’ve got something a little different for you. I am joined by two guests. The first is Dr. Jon Isaacson, who is Superintendent at Hillsboro R-III School District in Hillsboro, Missouri. And with him is my colleague, Collin Osburn.

Over the past 13 years, Collin has worked with thousands of school districts, helping them address challenges in areas like human resources, recruiting, hiring, managing teacher absences and substitutes and more. And so, Dr. Isaacson and Collin, thank you for joining me on Field Trip.
Dr. Jon Isaacson: Thank you for having me.
Collin Osburn: Thank you.
Ryan: We are having this conversation at a time when teacher shortage is a phrase that we sometimes see in headlines. Data from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute shows that on average across the country, school districts need to hire a similar or slightly higher number of teachers than they have in years past, but are seeing a pretty significant decrease in the number of applicants. Right now I’m actually going to turn it over to Colin and Dr. Isaacson, because I know that this is something that you are both very familiar with.
Collin: Thanks Ryan. And thank you Dr. Isaacson. I appreciate you taking the time.

Something that I’ve been talking about with a lot of leaders across the state and the country over the past decade, really, is how the teacher shortage has evolved, how the recruitment efforts have evolved. When I first got into the K-12 market, I heard principals tell me that they liked to see the handwriting on the applications. It gave them a good indication of the candidate. And I think that’s evolved quite a bit to where we’re at today. First, I’d just like to start out with asking you a question. How many openings did you have this last year, and how many have you gotten filled?
Dr. Isaacson: I believe we probably had about 10 to 12 openings, and we currently have one. Position that we haven’t filled. We may have this morning, but it was a special education position, and those are probably the most difficult to fill. But overall, I’ve been pretty pleased with how we ended up.
Collin: Tell me a little bit about how you think you differentiate your school district, and why you think you’ve been successful with filling those positions and how you’re pleased based on the quality of those recruitment strategies.
Dr. Isaacson: Sure. At Hillsboro, I do think historically we’ve been somewhat of a destination district. We’re n an area south of St. Louis where we still are rural, but it’s 35 minutes I can be down at Busch Stadium in downtown. So we’ve experienced some teachers who want to move further away from St. Louis. But also from a salary standpoint, we’re attractive to those who are just a little bit south of us.

The other thing that I’ve done is really trying to focus on hiring people that live within a 20 mile radius. And I could get more into that later on, but that has really helped as far as turnover. And so I think that’s actually allowed us to decrease the number of teachers that have left.
Collin: You’re like a lot of other districts in that you’ve got some metropolitan appeal. You’re close but still rural. You’ve got the best of both worlds. I don’t want to diminish any district’s efforts, but when I boil down some of their strategies, it really comes down to ‘post and pray.’ And then the strategic thought is, ‘Let’s post in more spots and pray more that we get more applicants,’ because I think there’s a correlation between the quantity of applicants and the quality of applicants. How do you brand and market your district, the culture, your community, how do you paint that picture so that you can get awareness to people that don’t know about Hillsboro?
Dr. Isaacson: I think that, that’s very challenging, especially in today’s day and age as far as with social media, you have to put pushing stuff out about your culture and celebrating your successes, but ultimately it’s going to come down to sometimes, financial for sure, what we’re able to provide for the families of our teachers. And what I mean by that is, what’s in it for their children? Because often, teachers will bring their children with them to school. So you have to have that quality school that they want to bring their own kids to.

I think another piece that is the biggest, even as far as attracting, is the best way to fill jobs is not to have jobs open. The best way to solve our substitute problem is to not have absences. I can control that. And so we’ve really made an effort to focus on the things that we could control.
Collin: What are some of the retention efforts that you have in place that you’re thinking, ‘Okay we’ve got to really show a plan of growth and tenure here in order to try to retain them’?

Because I think you probably would recognize there’s a pretty significant cost to training employees and turnover, and then ultimately, just the turnover in the classroom, right? If I have somebody that’s only in there for two or three years, you know how that impacts the district.
Dr. Isaacson: Yeah. So, shameless Frontline plug, but I actually use couple of the Frontline products I use Location Analytics for all of our employees. I did some studies over the course of a year or two, and what I found was when we had employees that lived 20 miles or more away, 35% of those employees had nine or more absences versus if they lived within that 20 mile window, the average absences was four.

I correlate that to probably kids and illness and being further away. Or even whether, if it’s icy, ‘I’m just going to take today off. I don’t want to take that day in.’ We focus on student-teacher contact time because, again, I can’t control the kids’ attendance. We really try to focus on educator attendance, so focusing on that as far as when it comes to trying to hire and focus on teachers that live within that radius.

The other thing that I found is in our school district, we don’t lose teachers, really, to neighboring school districts. It’s not about money. A lot of times the teachers that we lose live outside that 20 mile radius. Because what ends up occurring is their kids move to that junior high age, high school age. And it’s tough leaving Hillsboro and having a 45-minute commute to get back home for soccer practice or whatever. So it’s merely family reasons of which they’re leaving. So using those pieces and also keeping track of the districts that they’re going to, and that’s a part of the Frontline information. We are able to see where the teachers are going and where we are attracting them from.

And so I keep a pretty tight eye on that from year in to year out to see, ‘Why are we losing? And how can we stop that?’ And the number one reason people leave is family reasons. So focusing on distance is huge.
Collin: Something else I’ve seen, districts are reaching out to me a lot saying, ‘Hey, we need to make an adjustment to our application. It’s too long.’ And in years past, that used to be a screening criteria to say, ‘Okay, if you really want the job, we really need to know this information in order to consider you.’ And now I’m seeing substantial cuts in the questions that are on the application so that we can just really capture the bare minimum. And the districts seem to take on more of that post-application responsibility to further recruit, but they’ve just got to get the names in the pool. Is that something you guys have experienced too?
Dr. Isaacson: No, but I have heard it probably is a deterrent. I’ve actually heard that, even on subbing, some of our retired teachers are like, ‘That application’s so long, I don’t even want to apply to come back and sub teach.’

I may take what you just said there and do some of that because sometimes it is too long, and I use that to really screen on some culture questions more so than just the canned, if all of us are just giving the, ‘Give me your educational philosophy.’ We can get to that later. I’d much rather talk with you about that, because, two, with ChatGPT, I can figure that out in two seconds anyhow. ‘Write an educational philosophy.’ So how viable is that going forward?
Collin: From a leadership perspective, going through this list, I suspect you and I could probably talk for hours, right? And I tried to consolidate what I think are the most important factors that I hear across the state in the country and to this conversation. Am I leaving anything out that maybe you wanted to talk about that were important that we didn’t discuss?
Dr. Isaacson: The thing is, we’re at a very pivotal time in education. Enrollments are declining. It’s bad from a financial standpoint. At Hillsboro, in 2007 we had 3,700 kids. We’re going to be at 3,200. And it’s not because people are fleeing, it’s because people are waiting longer to have kids, and they’re having less kids. The kindergarten class of kids born in 2008 was the change in smaller class sizes from then on. They are now going into eighth grade. We used to have 300 kids a class. Now we have 200. So I’ve been able to go down a couple of teachers at grade level, and that’s fairly consistent, both in Missouri and nationally. That has helped us with the teacher shortage because we actually need less teachers. But the cost of turnover is huge. When we put so many efforts into growing a teacher, sending them to professional development conferences, then to have them just leave the professional 10 years in, that’s not going to be good for education nationally or in the state of Missouri, or at Hillsboro.
Collin: I really appreciate how you use the tools and how you view the the school system, and I really appreciate your adoption and time and thank you very much for this. I’d love to meet up with you in a year and get an update from you and see how it’s going, but I really appreciate the time and perspective.
Dr. Isaacson: Thank you for having me.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software. For more information about how Frontline solutions can help schools with human capital management, business operations, and student management, visit And of course, don’t forget to subscribe to Field Trip while you’re at it for more stories like this one. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.