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How to help Colorado student teachers across the finish line? Pay them.

A masked teacher helps a masked student at a desk.

Colorado lawmakers hope stipends for student teachers will draw more diverse teachers into the profession.

Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

Saba Mohammed Ali worked hard to learn English as an immigrant from Iraq, and she feels passionate about helping other students like herself. But her path to becoming a teacher almost stopped at a “broken bridge.” 

A single parent, she delivered for Uber Eats on the weekend while studying for her master’s degree in early elementary education at the University of Colorado Denver. A car accident jeopardized her ability to work and finish her program, while the fees for licensing exams mounted to nearly $2,000 as she sometimes missed the bar by a few points.

On Wednesday the House Education Committee approved a bill to make it easier for aspiring teachers like Mohammed Ali to fulfill their dreams and for Colorado schools to hire a more diverse workforce.

House Bill 1220 would provide stipends to student teachers, who currently have to work for free while still paying tuition, and would provide alternative ways to prove mastery of teacher training requirements.

“You can imagine how life-changing a bill like this would have been for me and my family,” Mohammed Ali, who student teaches in an Aurora third-grade classroom, told lawmakers.

Bill supporters said the pandemic has worsened teacher shortages. 

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee gave bipartisan approval to two bills that would make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom, either full-time or as substitutes, without losing pension benefits. Those bills passed the House last week.

House Bill 1220 would provide teacher candidates with stipends if they earn up to 200% of the current Pell grant limit, starting in 2023-24. They could get $11,000 for a 16-week residency and $22,000 for a 32-week residency. 

A legislative analysis estimates about 1,300 students would be eligible each year and that it would cost the state about $19 million a year, with $717,000 more needed to cover exam fees, travel, and lodging.

Bill sponsor state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, said she’s optimistic that the legislature will find funding for the program. She said it would help create a teacher workforce that reflects Colorado students.

“We can get single parents and people who are financially struggling and military veterans and rural teachers,” McLachlan said. “These are people who should be in the education world because we’re teaching a wide variety of students.”

Representatives of Colorado teacher preparation programs said they lose students each year who can’t afford to complete student teaching, which is a full-time job yet pays nothing. 

Jenni Trujillo, dean of education at Fort Lewis College, where 45% of students are Native American, described one student teacher who drives 60 miles one way from Durango to Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in a truck with bald tires that he shares with his brother. The cost of an unexpected car repair has the potential to derail his plans. 

Meanwhile, her phone keeps ringing with calls from principals looking for teachers. 

Supporters said the bill’s provisions creating alternatives to licensure exams are also critical. A report last year from the National Council on Teacher Quality found that fewer than half of Colorado’s aspiring elementary teachers passed their exams on the first try, and of those who failed, many didn’t try again. 

Cristhina Shaikh, principal at Denver’s Munroe Elementary, said she failed her licensing exams twice herself, but still went on to receive distinguished ratings as a teacher. She’s had to let go of promising prospective teachers because they couldn’t pass their licensing exams. More often, they’ve been teachers of color and candidates whose first language wasn’t English, the very types of teacher Denver is eager to hire.

“If the praxis [exam] was the only indicator of whether I was qualified, I probably would not be an educator today,” said Shaikh, who earned her license with an alternative test that has since been discontinued.

The bill calls for the departments of education and higher education to work together to create other measures of teacher qualification, such as a combination of high grades on college coursework and portfolios of lesson plans, analysis of student data, and other work done during student teaching. Some other states, including Oregon, already have similar systems.

“We don’t want to compromise the goal of high-quality teachers,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat. 

The House Education Committee signed off on the bill with an 8-1 bipartisan vote. It still requires approval from both chambers.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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