Program offers new path into classroom amid teacher shortage

Colorado News

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Katie Lee graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming in communications last spring, but as summer started, she hadn’t yet found a job.

At the gym, she was talking with the new principal at Craig Middle School, Sara Linsacum, and she suggested Lee should try teaching, potentially filling one of the district’s openings amid the pandemic.

“I said, ‘I can’t really teach, Sara, because, obviously, I don’t have an education degree,’” Lee recalled. “She said, ‘Well, no, there’s this really cool program now in Colorado that just lets experts in our community come into our schools.’”

Lee went in and shadowed a class at the middle school, where she said she convinced herself to at least give it a try. Almost two months into the school year, Lee, who is teaching seventh grade English, said things have been going well.

“I don’t think I realized how much I loved education until I was put into this role where I really had to care about other people’s education and not just my own,” Lee said.

Lee is one of 19 teachers in northwest Colorado this fall who didn’t go to school for education but are using their degrees to step into the classroom at a time when there’s a teacher shortage locally and across the state. Since 2016, 50 teachers have completed the alternative teacher licensure program through the Northwest Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The Steamboat Springs School District has three teachers going through the program this year. Two more teach in the Hayden School District, with nine more in Moffat County. In all, the 19 teachers are nearly double the number in the program last year.

“There is a critical teacher shortage across all of Colorado, but especially here in the rural northwest,” said Maggie Bruski, who runs the program for Northwest BOCES. “It is designed to help districts feeling the effects of teacher shortage to hire individuals who have … a bachelor’s degree.”

Typically, a teacher would go to school for several years and go through student teaching before seeking out a job. But the alternative license program, overseen by the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education, allows someone with a bachelor’s degree who can prove competence in a particular subject — exams or credit hours — to start teaching right away.

“If an individual has a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a science field, they might be qualified and could apply for a teaching position at a high school teaching science,” Bruski said.

For people who maybe have a degree but struggle to find a job that would utilize it, Bruski wants them to consider the program.

“This is an option that they could help out our local school districts by becoming a teacher,” Bruski said.

Assuming someone has a degree and has enough relevant credits or passes a proficiency exam, the next step is to apply for a teaching position. Once hired, they can officially join the program, which costs about $4,400 and takes the whole school year. In addition to their teaching duties, candidates take 225 hours of further training throughout the year.

“At the end of the school year, they will be eligible for their initial teacher license,” Bruski said. “They will be like any other teacher who went through a traditional teachers pathway.”

Hayden School District Superintendent Christy Sinner said the program has been a game-changer by helping the district add several people over the past few years. They may need additional support early on, Sinner said, but before long, they are just as valuable as any other teacher.

“A majority of them have done things in education and worked with students in different avenues,” Sinner said. “You can get people that are in your community that want to become teachers and teach. That’s a great shoo-in right there.”

The hope is that if people are already in the community, they can fill a teaching position for more than just a year. Christie Stepan went to school for art, worked in some studios and in fine art publishing, but eventually wound up as a long-term substitute at Soda Creek Elementary School in 2017.

“I just loved it and then found out about the alternative license program from my principal,” said Stepan, an elementary art teacher at Soda Creek who completed the program and now has her license. “I felt pretty confident that I already knew how to teach art, so for me, it was kind of natural.”

Bruski and others said the program could be an alternative for people who have considered it but already pursued another career path.

“I was 34 and felt like, ‘oh, it’s too late.’ … But it’s not too late,” Stepan said. “If you think you would be a great teacher, if you have something in you that wants to teach, it is possible.”

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