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Colorado teacher prep programs saw an “exodus” when COVID hit — another test for school districts facing shortages

As Colorado’s teacher pipeline slows to a trickle, more of the state’s new educators are taking charge of classrooms while still learning how to teach

Jingzi ‘Ginny’ Huang, an associate dean at University of Northern Colorado who has worked for the university for 11 years, recently has seen more barriers to entry for those pursuing teaching, like expensive licensing exams and increasing competition among first-generation students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
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While teaching English to Greeley elementary school students who were just starting to learn the language, Ricardo Lopez would often hear his father’s struggles in their voices.

“You don’t want to see them struggle like you see someone so close to you struggle trying to communicate,” said Lopez, whose dad immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

It was grueling for the college student to show up to school two days a week and try to help students who needed so much more than what he and the few teachers by his side could give them. 

Lopez, 22, who had been studying to become an elementary school teacher so he could work with students learning English, left the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Teacher Education after a year and a half, uncertain about a career in education that he feared would leave him without enough resources to make a difference for his students and without enough pay. 

He’s far from alone in abandoning his plans to teach.

The Future of Teaching

The pipeline for training new teachers in Colorado was already under strain before the pandemic, but COVID, politics and rising costs have pushed it to the breaking point. In this miniseries, education reporter Erica Breunlin looks at the problem — and who is working on solutions.

PART I: The “exodus” from teacher prep programs adds extra strain

PART II: How school districts are working to grow a teacher workforce locally

Fewer students enrolled in and completed teacher preparation programs across the state during the 2019-20 school year than the previous school year, all but ensuring that Colorado’s statewide teacher shortages will continue. At the same time, a growing number of new teachers are from alternative preparation programs, which cater to students who already have a bachelor’s degree and are employed as a “teacher of record,” meaning they work full time in the classroom while still learning how to teach. 

The overall dip in the state’s teacher pipeline has raised concerns among state education officials following a school year riddled with teacher shortages, which left many schools scrambling to cover classrooms. The number of students pursuing careers in teaching had been on an upswing during the past few years, until the 2019-20 school year, when the number of students enrolling in programs dropped by 584 from the year before, according to a report on Colorado’s educator preparation programs published in April by the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado Department of Higher Education.

During the same year, the number of students who completed educator preparation programs plummeted by 192.

Those declines coincide with the onset of the pandemic, the report notes, but “it is too early to know if this is a temporary or persistent downward trend.” 

Data for the 2020-21 school year will likely be available in December, while data for the most recent school year will likely be available in December 2023, according to CDE spokesman Jeremy Meyer.

Despite the downward trends, the number of students enrolling in and completing teacher preparation programs statewide is higher than it was five years ago. During the 2015-16 school year, 11,224 students enrolled in educator preparation programs while 3,152 students completed programs. Enrollment numbers consistently climbed the following years, reaching 12,267 in 2018-19 before dropping to 11,683 in 2019-20, according to the report. 

The number of students who completed teacher preparation programs has been in steady decline since hitting 3,611 in 2016-17. During the 2019-20 school year, 3,201 students completed teacher preparation programs, the report shows.

State education officials and higher education leaders suspect the pandemic and the uncertainty it unleashed was one reason fewer students sought out programs in teaching or continued in those programs during the 2019-20 school year. Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education, said teacher preparation programs statewide saw an “exodus” of students, and programs don’t necessarily know what happened to students they lost. 

Some may have moved out of state to enroll in a different program or dropped out and found jobs to support their families amid the economic downturn that accompanied COVID, O’Neil said.

But the pandemic is only part of the problem, she said.

Longstanding challenges in the teaching profession are much more influential in students’ decisions to veer away from a career in the classroom — including low pay and a disparaging narrative around teaching that has only worsened over time, particularly in the past two years.

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“There hasn’t been a whole lot of strong publicity around education and how amazing it can be to be a teacher,” O’Neil said. “It’s been a little more negative.”

She worries about negative perceptions deflating students’ ambitions to become an educator and preventing them from even exploring teaching as a career.

“The public rhetoric is so hard to even break through (that) you don’t even enter the programs in the first place,” O’Neil said, adding that “there’s a real disconnect” between how she hears many parents and community members talk about the job of an educator and the excitement she sees in students working toward their teaching license.

The negative sentiments around education as a profession have factored into a drop in enrollment in some programs at the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Teacher Education, said Jingzi Huang, school director for the School of Teacher Education and associate dean for the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. 

“Teachers in this country are not viewed or treated as true professionals,” said Huang, who has taught in both the United States and Canada and recalls how much more autonomy she had as a teacher in Canada.

Jingzi ‘Ginny’ Huang, Ph. D, Associate Dean University of Northern Colorado, has worked for the university for 11 years and recently has seen more barriers to entry for those pursuing teaching, like expensive licensing exams and increasing competition among first-generation students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Enrollment in UNC’s School of Teacher Education, the biggest teacher preparation program in the state, has significantly ebbed in recent years. From 2019 to 2021, the school’s enrollment dropped by 29% while enrollment among students focused on special education decreased by almost 16%, according to Huang.

She said the pandemic has elevated stress levels for teachers when they were already stretched, with pressure coming from all directions — including parents, state mandates and low salaries that don’t keep up with the cost of living.

The financial struggles teachers face have remained a stubborn deterrent to drawing more people into the workforce, with some new educators in Colorado districts still earning as little as $28,000 a year, O’Neil said.

Both O’Neil and Huang are adamant that a decent wage is critical to making the teaching profession more attractive.

If educators are struggling to make ends meet, Huang said, it gives the public the impression that “this is not a profession that deserves respect.”

Students in teacher preparation programs often rack up student debt as they pay tuition and student teach full time, many without being compensated and without any time to pick up another job. They must also dish out extra money to take licensure exams, which can easily add up to a few hundred dollars.

Legislation passed during the most recent legislative session will help ease some of these financial constraints for students on the path to teaching, creating state stipend programs to pay students while they student teach and help students cover the costs of licensure exams.

Huang added that a focus on teacher retention across schools will be a critical part of building up the next generation of educators.

“If the retention does not look good, it would deter new teachers, new people, from getting into the profession,” she said.

Not all teacher preparation programs suffered declines

Newly minted teachers in the state come from two kinds of teacher preparation programs. Traditional preparation programs serve students who are working toward a bachelor’s degree or more advanced degree while completing their teacher’s license. Those students pursuing a bachelor’s degree often study at a higher education institution for four years and are obligated to student teach in a classroom under the supervision of an experienced educator. 

Alternative certification programs require that candidates be employed by a school district, already have a bachelor’s degree and demonstrate content knowledge whether it’s through a higher education degree or a state required assessment. 

“So you are learning to teach in the year you are employed as the teacher,” said Carolyn Haug, director of research and impact for CDE’s Educator Talent Division.

While overall enrollment within statewide programs declined and fewer students completed programs during the 2019-20 school year, traditional teacher preparation programs also experienced a loss of students entering and completing those programs, according to the report on Colorado’s educator pipeline. Enrollment in traditional preparation programs fell by just over 300 students from 10,715 in 2018-19 to 10,414 in 2019-20. The number of students completing traditional programs also dropped in that time period, from 2,517 to 2,314.

Angie Paccione, executive director of CDHE, believes that decrease partly stems from people being lured by other industries, with jobs that have competitive pay and less stress.

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“I think that the pandemic caused … an existential reckoning, that people had to consider, ‘What is it all for?’” Paccione said.

The number of students enrolling in alternative certification programs decreased by 275 — from 1,580 to 1,305. But the number of students who completed those programs steadily increased, from 760 in 2017-18 to 878 in 2018-19 to 890 in 2019-20, the report shows.

That doesn’t surprise Liz Qualman, director of teacher education at Colorado Mountain College, particularly as “the teacher shortages are becoming dire in some areas of Colorado, especially rural areas.”

Colorado Mountain College, which has had an alternative certification program for two years, walks teacher candidates through the basics like lesson planning and classroom management. The two-year program also introduces those enrolled to multicultural education, the ways people learn, specific learning and assessment strategies, and how to work with students who have special needs.

While in Colorado Mountain College’s alternative certification program, teacher candidates also receive a range of support, including Zoom courses with a professor and peers, field supervision from college faculty members and a mentor teacher who belongs to the same district.

The intensity of support a teacher candidate receives allows them to be a successful educator even as they’re still learning the mechanics of teaching, Qualman said.

The Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge campus. (Photo by Stephanie Stocking provided by CMC)

“That’s where you ensure that they’re working toward that effectiveness and quality that we’re looking for in teaching,” she said.

The Colorado River Board of Cooperative Education Services also offers an alternative licensure program, one that has gained significant traction in its five years, said Troy Lange, director of alternative licensure.

Four candidates enrolled in the program during its first year while 55 enrolled during the most recent school year, Lange said.

The program requires that teacher candidates have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher education and demonstrate knowledge of the content they want to teach, either by completing college coursework or passing an assessment related to their subject area. They must also have secured a job teaching that subject and get a temporary teaching license, called an alternative teaching licensure, that they keep until they complete the full program and become fully licensed.

Teacher candidates within the Colorado River BOCES’s program also are cushioned with a variety of support, including a mentor teacher from their school, a field supervisor from the program who holds them accountable, instructional coaches who observe remotely and provide feedback and opportunities for the teacher candidate to watch a recording of themselves teaching and offer up their own feedback.

Alternative licensure programs enable new teachers to immediately apply what they learn to their classroom instruction, Lange said. 

And it’s become a critical part of building up the state’s teacher workforce across rural, resort rural and Front Range communities at a time Colorado needs “multiple pathways working in concert” to overcome the “crisis” of connecting quality teachers to schools, he said.

“Would this be the ideal way to build up the profession?” Lange asked. “Probably not. But I do think it is highly effective. It’s impressive to watch these folks learn and grow and how quickly they get their feet under them and then continue to refine and grow throughout the year.”

“The bad outnumbered the good”

Lopez’s decision to abandon plans for a teaching career came with heavy emotions. The UNC student, who will graduate in December as a business marketing major, had had his sights set on teaching since his sophomore year in high school, when he served as a teacher’s assistant and helped with grading papers and coaching individual students. Like so many others who dream of a career in education, teaching became a passion for Lopez.

But in time that passion collided with the harsh realities of the field — a lack of adequate resources for the state’s neediest students, including those learning English as a second language, and compensation that wouldn’t necessarily put Lopez on a path to independence.

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“I always wanted to help my parents out like they helped me while I was growing up, and I realized that teachers aren’t getting paid enough,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to have to move home to be able to afford to be a teacher.

As an openly gay man, Lopez also worried about the possibility of being treated differently by parents and administrators simply because of his sexual orientation.

“When all these factors came to play, the bad outnumbered the good,” he said.

Lopez is now focused on making it to graduation while also working as a personal banker at a bank in Greeley. His mind has wandered back to the idea of teaching some day as he contemplates getting a master’s or doctorate degree and potentially teaching a high school business class. His bank has also helped teach local students about financial stability through the nonprofit Junior Achievement, which has recharged his interest in a career in the classroom.

Meanwhile, his roommate, Allie Wennerstrom, has forged ahead with teaching, having recently graduated from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in special education. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree while preparing to start a new job in August as a special education resource teacher at Tointon Academy in Greeley.

Allie Wennerstrom stands across the street from Tointon Academy in Greeley on Monday, May 30, 2022. The new K-8 school is slated to open in August, when Wennerstrom will begin working as a special education resource teacher. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Wennerstrom, 21, has watched other friends who once also saw a future in education flock to other professions during the pandemic. But she didn’t waver on her plans to teach students with special needs.

She has a lot of questions about what the classroom will look like in the future: How will schools cope with teacher shortages? How much has the pandemic set back students’ academic progress? What will learning look like for students with disabilities in the future and how will technology shape their classes?

Those unanswered questions don’t deter her from sticking to education. Nor does the long list of demands that have been placed on teachers during the pandemic, particularly after she served as a substitute teacher while carrying a full course load in college.

And she knows students in special education need someone rooting for them and believing in them.

“I just have a love for those special ed students,” Wennerstrom said, “and I think it just is exciting to see those little lights go on in their heads when they really understand something.”



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