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Jorge Cabral, who teaches sixth through eighth grade social studies at Vikan Middle School in Brighton, started teaching full time in January 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Near the end of last semester, Jorge Cabral’s budget was on the brink. He carefully watched how he spent each dollar, limiting his purchases to essentials like shampoo and toilet paper and cutting corners with meals by buying rice and beans to last through each week.

On top of getting no pay for his full-time student teaching job, Cabral had had to shell out $90 to take an exam that would secure his teacher license early last year.

“That’s two weeks of groceries if you plan it out right,” he said. “And good groceries, too.”

Cabral, who graduated in December from the University of Northern Colorado, found himself “budgeting to the max” to make ends meet as an unpaid student teacher — a financial challenge most Colorado educators grapple with on the path to becoming a licensed teacher. Now, as Colorado school districts struggle to fill classrooms with certified educators, lawmakers aim to relieve some of the financial burdens with a proposed stipend program to provide student teachers help with living expenses. House Bill 1220, introduced in February, would also help students pay for expensive licensure exams and direct state departments to establish another way of licensing educators. 

Proponents of the measure are optimistic that by tackling some of the major financial hurdles for teachers in training and expanding the ways a teacher candidate can become licensed, Colorado can recruit more educators and diversify its K-12 workforce, which has long run short of teachers of color.

Bill sponsor Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, worries about the number of prospective teachers who have given up on a career in education simply because they can’t afford the cost of living while continuing to pay tuition and student teach for free.

Jorge Cabral, who teaches sixth through eighth grade social studies at Vikan Middle School in Brighton, started teaching full time in January 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“I think we probably lost a lot of good teachers over the years because of that,” said McLachlan, who taught English at Durango High School for 20 years.

For first-generation college students as well as students of color and students from low-income families, the expenses associated with teacher training are often out of reach, said Jingzi Huang, director of the School of Teacher Education and associate dean for the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at UNC.

Under the legislative proposal, sponsored by Democrats and Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, student teachers committed to 16 weeks in a classroom could receive $11,000 while those spending 32 weeks at a school could earn $22,000. The legislation is intended to help students who need financial assistance, and eligibility will be tied to income thresholds, McLachlan said.

“These students don’t have a lot of money anyway, and now we’re asking them to go for all these weeks without working at all,” McLachlan said. “They can’t survive.”

Student teachers can hold outside jobs, but many often can’t find the time as they have to be in class during weekdays and tackle their own coursework, and some also have families to look after, said Liz Qualman, director of teacher education at Colorado Mountain College.

“It is too challenging to expect a student teacher to have a second job to support themselves while engaging in coursework and student teaching,” Qualman said.

She believes student teachers are shortchanged by “an archaic system,” particularly as many other fields offer paid internships. And while the teacher workforce has historically consisted of predominantly white, middle class women who graduated from college and were expected to student teach without compensation, that makeup is shifting.

“The landscape of who we’re trying to recruit into the workforce is changing, and if we want a diverse workforce, we can’t have that same expectation,” Qualman said. “If we want more teachers in the field, we have to be able to support them through to completion and licensure.”

Cabral, who student taught at Greeley West High School and now teaches world cultures at Vikan Middle School in Brighton, felt lucky with a scholarship from UNC to help with living expenses last semester. He scraped by, determined to reach the finish line and earn his licensure so that he could have a classroom of his own.

“If it came to the point where I had to take out extra student loans, I would do it because it’s really something that I love,” Cabral said.

He stuck with teaching in hopes of inspiring students with backgrounds similar to his own. The Latino educator said that during his time as a student teacher, Latino boys who spoke only Spanish would ask him about his experience preparing to be a teacher. He filled them in on the process of applying to college — something he plans to keep passing onto students.

Jorge Cabral, who teaches sixth through eighth grade social studies at Vikan Middle School in Brighton, started teaching full time in January 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“There’s always the option of getting a higher education,” said Cabral, who doesn’t recall having any Latino teachers in Colorado and Wyoming, where he lived in elementary and high school.

Many students of color in Colorado have similar stories, rarely encountering a teacher who looks like them throughout most of their K-12 classes. Yet the state has inched forward with diversity among educators and is “more diverse now than it has ever been,” particularly as it’s drawn more Hispanic professionals into teaching, said Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education. 

During the 2015-16 school year, about 13.5% of the state’s teachers identified as Hispanic, O’Neil said, while last year, that percentage swelled to about 18.4%.

“That’s not enough, but we want to celebrate the fact that we have been able to open some more doors,” O’Neil said, adding, “we still have schools where kids aren’t seeing teachers who represent them.”

CDE conducted a minority teacher report in 2014 and followed up with a listening tour in 2017 and repeatedly heard from educators of color that they didn’t have positive school experiences and may not have “seen that person in the room that was like them, to be a mentor or to springboard off of,” O’Neil said. 

That has become a “cyclical barrier,” she said, adding that when students can’t see themselves in their teachers, they may be less likely to pursue careers as teachers. Teachers of color also indicated that once they entered university programs, their peers didn’t resemble them either.

Along with paying student teachers, the legislation seeks to help teachers in training cover the cost of licensure exams that can add up to hundreds of dollars. For example, someone pursuing a license to teach elementary school would be required to pay more than $300 for required exams, said Huang, of UNC.

When students fail their exams during their first attempt, they must retake them — and pay all over again. Teachers who struggle to pass the licensure exams sometimes become discouraged and give up altogether, Huang noted, adding that generally students of color have a lower passing rate on licensure exams.

She also favors expanding the ways that educators can become licensed beyond the exams some teacher candidates must currently take — another goal of House Bill 1220. That could mean that students in the teacher pipeline could present a portfolio of their work for evaluation rather than having to take a licensure test.

Bill sponsors sent the legislation back to the House Education Committee on Tuesday after it was up for discussion in Appropriations. The measure is benefiting from one-time funds under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, McLachlan said, and sponsors plan to make amendments focused on how to best use the money to benefit educators.

“We’re trying to give everyone an equal opportunity to become a teacher,” McLachlan said, “without lessening the quality of the teachers themselves.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...