Kellee Nolke talks to her kindergarten class at University Elementary School, 6525 W 18th St, in Greeley in 2019. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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.

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.