Colorado is launching a teacher apprenticeship program in race to solve chronic staff shortages

 

The program, launching for prospective teachers next year, will be tailored toward individuals who don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree.

Deejha Blash-Lopez instructs kindergarteners May 14, 2024, at Mountain View Elementary School in Longmont. Blash-Lopez is finishing up her first year of teaching at the elementary school. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

 

LONGMONT — They barely ever stop wiggling or giggling, and yet Deejha Blash-Lopez still manages to teach her kindergarten class how to sound out words and syllables — the same skills she learned decades ago in a classroom just down the hallway.

Blash-Lopez, a eacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Longmont, has come full circle at her school, despite being only about a year into her career. She now teaches in the same room where she attended fifth grade and still learns from her second grade teacher, Mrs. Horowitz, who continues to sub at the elementary school and was the first person to nudge her toward teaching. “It feels right,” Blash-Lopez said. “It just feels like everything fell together, and it’s where I’m meant to be. It’s a surreal experience to be working with people that helped drive me to find this passion and were hoping to inspire others to become educators as well. I just hope that I can inspire other students like the educators that inspired me.”

The 22-year-old teacher is among a growing number of Colorado educators who have made their way into the classroom through apprenticeships, which have a deep history in other fields but are newer to teaching. The Colorado Department of Education and school districts across the state are expanding apprenticeship opportunities for promising teaching candidates as staff shortages continue to cripple many schools. During the 2023-24 school year — the most recent year of available data — 635 teaching positions in Colorado schools were left unfilled for the year, according to figures from CDE. Meanwhile 1,756 vacant positions were filled using a temporary fix allowed by the state, such as granting workers an emergency or alternative teaching license.

There’s a speck of good news within that data: The number of unfilled educator positions dropped from the previous school year, though the number of positions filled through a shortage mechanism jumped 18%. In hopes of drawing more people from a broader set of backgrounds into teaching careers, and keeping them in the classroom for more than a few years, both the state and at least three school districts have developed apprenticeship programs.

In St. Vrain Valley School District RE 1J, where Blash-Lopez began her training and now teaches, paraprofessionals and even high school students are paired with experienced educators in a classroom to learn from them in action. In eastern Colorado, Morgan County School District Re-3 in Fort Morgan offers more seasoned teachers an apprenticeship to earn endorsements in areas like special education. And farther south in El Paso County, Calhan School District RJ-1 is two years into a program that also supports paras in getting classroom experience and coursework so they can become licensed teachers.

The state, meanwhile, is preparing to launch its own apprenticeship program — likely in fall 2025 — that will allow prospective teachers to complete both their bachelor’s degree and initial teacher licensure at the same time. The State Teacher Degree Apprenticeship Program, made possible by legislation passed in 2023, will blend components of both traditional and alternative teacher licensure programs.

Students in traditional programs take courses aligned to a set of state teacher quality standards. After completing their college courses and student teaching, they earn their bachelor’s degree and a teaching license. Alternative education program students must already have a bachelor’s degree in a specific content area. They take classes through a higher education institution or a school district to learn how to teach, but the bulk of their training occurs in the classroom. They either co-teach beside another educator or work as a “teacher of record” and, while under observation, instruct students before they’re officially licensed.

The new state apprenticeship program will make it easier for more people — of all ages and backgrounds — to begin a teaching career and will open up a path into the classroom for those who may assume they don’t fit the typical mold of a teacher. The program is a nod to a growing recognition in Colorado that good educators come from a variety of places beyond the conventional high school-to-college trajectory. The apprenticeship program “helps diversify the pipeline of our teachers,” said Mary Bivens, executive director of educator workforce development at CDE. “We’re tapping into communities where there’s not such a high rate of people who already have bachelor’s degrees.”

Does that lower the bar on the quality of newcomers to teaching? No, Bivens says, as the new apprenticeship program will abide by the same teacher quality standards that anchor both traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs. And it will give apprentices the hands-on classroom experience needed to master the skills behind teaching. “The standards aren’t different,” she said. “It’s the approach to how you gain the competencies in those standards.”

Calhan School District introduced a para-to-teacher apprenticeship program “out of dire necessity” after trying to keep all classrooms full during the chaotic days of the pandemic, Superintendent Dave Slothower said. “We learned during COVID. We saw our paraprofessionals, many of them with years of experience delivering instruction, doing a great job,” Slothower said. “And we thought, can’t we access that talent to fill our rooms, to teach our students?’”

The district’s apprenticeship program caters to paras who have had at least three years of experience working with students and doesn’t require them to complete a bachelor’s degree, though it uses an incentive of higher pay to encourage them to pursue a degree, Slothower said. Three paras are part of the rural school district’s apprenticeship program and receive salaries while completing 24 credits remotely over two years from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The district covers the cost of those course credits. Slothower said he has been impressed by the performance of the apprentices, whose classes in some cases are matching or exceeding the academic outcomes of licensed educators. He attributes part of their success to the almost daily mentoring those apprentices receive.

The program in the district of nearly 440 students has revived the possibility of teaching among locals who thought they lost out on their chance by not chasing a career in education sooner, Slothower said. It “keeps that door wide open for a whole group of people that could be teachers, like to work with kids, in the community they want to contribute but they thought, ‘I missed the boat because I didn’t go to college after high school,’” he said of education.

The other apprentice, Shannon Wilde, is a 16-year teaching veteran who has earned a mentor endorsement in hopes of coaching other educators and easing them through the challenges and uncertainties of teaching.

Wilde, an English teacher in the dual language immersion program at Columbine Elementary School, took courses through Western Colorado University, studying ways to acclimate early career teachers and make sure all students’ needs are being met.

She sees the apprenticeship program as something that can encourage teachers to stay in the classroom, particularly as it helps build up an army of mentors who she said can brighten the school year for those in the early stages of learning how to command a classroom.

“It can make all the difference in taking it from an OK year to a great year for a beginning teacher.”

Erica BreunlinEducation Reporter

erica@coloradosun.com

 

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