In a dimly lit classroom, students hunch over laptops, watching YouTube videos on repeat as they try to translate song lyrics into sign language.
One girl calls over Rosine Niyoyishura to help her choose between different meanings of the word “fight.” Then Niyoyishura moves to a boy, who is having a hard time concentrating. She tries a different song.
“Do you like this one?” she asks. “Let’s practice it.”
Niyoyishura is just a junior at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in far northeast Denver, but several days a week, she works as a paraprofessional in a middle school classroom that includes typical students and those with disabilities. She’s part of Denver’s EdConnect program, designed to give students a head start on a teaching career with the hope that they become educators in the communities that raised them.
EdConnect is just one example of the “grow your own” approach that school districts and states are using as they try to fill a gaping teacher shortage. The appeal of this approach is significant: Diverse school districts get teachers that better reflect their students, in terms of race, language, and lived experiences. Rural school districts get teachers with deep roots in the community who will be less tempted to leave. Potential educators get a better sense of whether they actually like the work, and they get financial assistance to finish their education and student teaching.
In recent years, Colorado has invested in a host of “grow your own” teacher programs, offering fellowships and stipends to rural teachers and creating new opportunities for student teachers in districts across the state. But some programs have been sparsely utilized, even as others don’t have the resources to meet demand.
A rural fellowship was supposed to provide $10,000 stipends to as many as 100 student teachers a year. But just 12 students qualified in the first year and 18 in the next. Another program that gives teachers their own classroom in the final year of their training program has licensed just three teachers, with three more pending. Meanwhile, a different stipend for rural educators has twice as many applicants as awards.
Now lawmakers are considering a bill that would expand programs like EdConnect that provide college credit and work experience for future educators starting in high school. They also want to improve on previous efforts to attract more aspiring educators.
“The problem is that we’ve had silos,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and chair of the Senate Education Committee. “We’ve run all of these different programs with different pots of money for each program. There is no flexibility.”
Another bill would offer $5,000 scholarships to graduates of high school “grow your own” programs, ensure college credit is transferable, and make it easier for teachers finishing their training to move into the classroom.
And yet another bill would expand programs that allow high school students to earn college credit and work paid apprenticeships, with 35% of the funding to go to rural school districts.
“There is a shortage of educators,” said state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and former superintendent, in a recent committee meeting. “We heard even today, educators have to work two or three jobs. Why go into education? We need our young people to see the positive side of it.”
For 2018-19, the most recent year for which data is available, 264 jobs remained open at the start of the year and districts filled 933 jobs through a shortage mechanism, like emergency licensure. While that’s a tiny fraction of the state’s 55,000 teaching positions, it’s a big problem for students who don’t have a qualified math or special education teacher.
State Rep. Bri Buentello, a Pueblo Democrat and a teacher, said there are teachers in her House district who teach multiple subjects, some of which they don’t know well, as districts struggle with vacancies.
“There is no way you can tell me that a teacher pulling triple duty isn’t impacting a student’s quality of education,” she said.
She hopes a new educator pathways program will expand these opportunities beyond Front Range districts like Denver, Cherry Creek, and St. Vrain.
Will more investment in the grow-your-own approach pay off in the long run? The track record from other states is mixed.
A $20 million Illinois program that aimed to turn 1,000 parents, community leaders, and school staff into new teachers produced just 102 college graduates, of whom 80 were still in the classroom a decade into the program. A 2018 study that looked at the limited academic literature on grow-your-own programs found a mixed record, with many participants struggling to complete their degrees. But the paraprofessionals of color who made it through and obtained their teaching licenses seemed to be more likely to stay in teaching and stay in high-needs schools.
The programs that targeted middle and high school students with an interest in teaching had a worse track record. The programs that were more successful offered strong mentorship that supported students after high school and helped them overcome barriers like family obligations, financial struggles, and cultural isolation on campus.
While Colorado’s rural teaching fellowship has been undersubscribed — due to requirements that higher ed institutions provide matching funds and that participants complete a full year of student teaching in a single district — a more flexible stipend program also approved in 2018 has more demand than it can meet.
Valerie Sherman of the Colorado Center for Rural Education at the University of Northern Colorado, the state’s largest teacher prep program, believes these programs are making a difference in “planting the rural seed” among educators. The center is working on a study of how many program participants are still teaching and still doing so in rural districts to have data to back up the anecdotal evidence.
Niyoyishura’s parents were teachers before they came to the United States from France and Congo, and while she always wanted to follow in their footsteps, her EdConnect experience has left her more confident that she belongs in the classroom and more knowledgable about the path forward.
“That impact they had, I want that,” she said. “I want kids to lean on me. I want to be a mentor.”
Tera Jones, EdConnect program manager for Denver Public Schools, said the district is committed to building its own teacher pipeline.
“I think that folks are clamoring for there to be more teachers of color,” Jones said. “I’m excited to see what these graduates can do.”
Sherman said she sees good work going on around the state. But she also sees two issues holding back aspiring educators.
“If I could have two wishes,” she said, she would have “housing for student teachers and a livable wage for educators. Those are bigger problems than I can solve.”