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The Calhan School District school serves upward of 400 preschool to 12th grade students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The question of how to draw more teachers into a profession defined by high stress and low pay has become increasingly difficult for administrators like Dave Slothower to answer over the past two years.

“This is important work,” said Slothower, superintendent of Calhan School District east of Colorado Springs. “I don’t think anybody would disagree that the mission of public schools is incredibly important and incredibly vital to so many things in our country, and we find ourselves in a position that to be a teacher in a public school, you almost have to take a vow of poverty.”

Like many district leaders who tried to steer their schools through a year of pandemic and political pressures, Slothower has found himself scrambling to figure out how to fill open teaching positions that have drawn little interest.

Rather than trying to entice teacher candidates to his rural district from other parts of Colorado, Slothower and other administrators in the state are zeroing in on their local communities to train potential educators who already call their schools’ neighborhoods home.

Districts are turning to paraprofessionals employed in their schools, parents who may have never finished college and are intrigued by a career in teaching, high schoolers who show early promise in one day managing a classroom and other prospective candidates who are eager to teach so long as they can become licensed while learning on the job. 

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

Through partnerships between districts and Colorado higher education institutions, programs have emerged to create different options for locals to pursue teaching and shape students’ lives in a community where they’ve already planted roots. It’s one way that districts, particularly those in rural settings, are tackling educator shortages straining schools’ ability to keep classrooms open.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to keep the best person teaching in front of kids every day,” said Pat Bershinsky, executive director of the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Ushering paraprofessionals into the teacher pipeline

More than five years ago, when Bershinsky was the superintendent of Edison School District southeast of Colorado Springs, he could usually count on getting up to seven applications for a position teaching math.

“Today, you won’t get one,” said Bershinsky, whose board of cooperative educational services provides resources and support to 14 rural districts in the Pikes Peak region.

It’s a problem that’s become more common for Colorado districts, especially those in rural settings where it’s a challenge for administrators to sell candidates on a remote lifestyle and an ever-increasing cost of living.

Pat Bershinsky, executive director at the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, on March 15 in Calhan. Pikes Peak BOCES, an educational organization founded in 1968, serves 14 school districts in central Colorado. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Calhan School District, which has about 470 students, is still trying to fill four open teaching positions for the next school year, Slothower said.

Both Slothower and Bershinsky are tired of waiting for candidates to come to them and chasing out-of-town candidates. The two administrators are preparing to launch a new program in August that will give paraprofessionals, or paras, an avenue into teaching. Calhan schools came to heavily rely on those staff members to keep classrooms operating during the pandemic.

“Our crisis has not been COVID,” Slothower said. “Our crisis is and has been staffing, and trending is indicating to us that it will continue to be.”

Paras, who assist teachers with managing a classroom and working with students, are Calhan School District’s “most readily available workforce,” Slothower said. 

He and Bershinsky are developing a two-year para-to-teacher registered apprenticeship program. Those paras must have accumulated 4,000 hours, or three years, of experience in a classroom and obtain a substitute teaching license. Once they complete 24 credit hours of coursework — offered at the Calhan School District through the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs — and pass the state’s licensing exam, they will become a “credentialed apprentice.”

Dave Slothower, principal and superintendent of Calhan Public Schools on March 15. The Calhan K-12 school facilitates paraprofessional teaching amid increasing enrollment throughout El Paso County. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“Our paras that are already in our building are already in the rhythm of a small rural school,” Slothower said.

He anticipates that the program will have 30 teacher apprentices enrolled this fall from the 14 districts in the Pikes Peak BOCES.

The program still needs the approval of the the state Department of Labor and Employment, and from the U.S. Department of Labor, which last year began permitting apprenticeship programs for teachers to help resolve the national teacher shortage, said Mary Bivens, executive director of the educator workforce development unit at the Colorado Department of Education.

Separately, a new state law passed last year paved the way for districts like Calhan School District to prepare future teachers from its pool of paras, Bivens said. The law expanded the ways districts can hire a professional who has an adjunct authorization, which means they are qualified to teach a certain subject, even if they’ve never taught before. A person can become an adjunct teacher if they have a degree in the subject they want to teach or if they can demonstrate five years of experience within their specialty, Bivens said. 

Paras who have at least five years of classroom experience can qualify for the authorization while they’re in the para-to-teacher program, Bivens said. That authorization will carry them through as they take courses through UCCS or another institution, and once they’re done they can move on to secure an initial teaching license followed by a professional license.

Paras also have the option of applying for a one-year substitute teaching license, which does not require a bachelor’s degree, Bivens noted. A para could use a one-year substitute teaching license to sub and gain experience that would count toward their five years in the classroom, which would set them on a path to receive an adjunct authorization.

“I think this is another piece to the puzzle of dealing with the educator shortage,” she said. 

The teacher apprenticeship program is the first of its kind in Colorado, as far as Slothower knows, but similar models have been adopted in other states, including Tennessee. The ultimate goal is to lay the foundation for a workforce program that other districts could adopt for their own schools.

“This is our stab at fixing our teacher shortage and ensuring that we have quality people standing in front of our kids every day,” Bershinsky said.

Makayla Avery became a para for Calhan School District last fall as a way of bringing in more income for her family after her husband sold his business. The mother of four had been a stay-at-home mom and also had experience homeschooling her kids and running a home day care. She quickly became attached to her job and her third and fourth grade students and jumped into a full-fledged career teaching. 

By November, as enrollment in the district’s third and fourth grades had continued to jump, the district needed another third grade teacher to instruct 18 students. Avery, 32, stepped into the role as a long-term substitute, which required her to get a substitute teaching license and complete a background check.

Paraprofessional Makayla Avery teaches third grade students at the Calhan school on March 15. Avery, currently looking toward elementary classwork as a longer-term position, initially took up paraprofessional teaching as a temporary job while working toward her degree in business administration. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

She got advice from colleagues to better understand how to plan lessons and remain flexible enough to adapt them in the moment. Learning how to manage her classroom and all the personalities within it was a challenge for the budding educator, but she aims to teach long term, particularly after seeing her students make progress with schoolwork they struggled to grasp and beam with excitement.

Avery is working toward a bachelor’s degree online through Southern New Hampshire University, where she previously was studying business administration. She has switched to a focus on general studies and psychology and will graduate in December. Meanwhile, she has signed a contract with the district to teach third grade next year.

“It’s mostly about community,” she said. “I live out here so I know a lot of the kids already, and I think that there’s a lot of needs in rural areas, and since I’m here I might as well help.”

Educating the next generation of teachers close to home

As more rural Colorado school districts find ways to tap into the local workforce, the University of Colorado Denver is expanding a program that keeps teacher candidates in their own communities while completing their degrees.

CU Denver will roll out the Partnership for Rural Educator Preparation program — or T-PREP — in the fall at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling so that local students interested in teaching elementary schoolers, working with students with special needs or focusing on early childhood can begin charting their course to the classroom while close to home.

The university introduced T-PREP in 2017 at Otero College in La Junta, then added Trinidad State College at the southern border of the state. Through the program, teacher candidates can work toward a bachelor’s degree and teaching license over four years. In their first two years, they take classes to get an associate’s degree at their local community college. During their second two years, they remain at their community college but take classes through CU Denver to earn their bachelor’s degree and teaching license. Since 2019, the program has graduated 28 students.

The program opens up a path to teaching for a cluster of people who don’t want to have to move away from their community to become a qualified educator, said Cindy Gutierrez, a director in CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development.

“If you go to the community itself, you are already going to find people who value that rural community, who already have a passion for it,” Gutierrez said. “They would love opportunities to give back to their community, but those opportunities might be limited from a workforce perspective because they don’t have access to the education that’s going to lead to the degree or credential that supports that.”

It’s a shift away from rural districts’ focus on importing talent and trying to persuade up-and-coming teachers to relocate to their communities, where they aren’t likely to stay very long.

Through T-PREP, teacher candidates take classes that prepare them to teach while also getting hands-on experience by working in a classroom, sometimes in a role they may have already had, such as a para or an early childhood teacher, Gutierrez said.

CU Denver offers some of its courses in person at the community colleges it partners with, often relying on local principals and experienced teachers to instruct students.

“It is about investing in the capacity that’s already there in the leadership of that community to solve this challenge together,” Gutierrez said.

T-PREP students also tune into live classes through Zoom, and some classes are available online for them to take at their own pace. By their senior year, they’re gradually taking on more teaching responsibilities, similar to student teachers in other training programs. They also get feedback and support from a mentor teacher at the school they’re gaining classroom experience at as well as from a residency coordinator who guides them while they’re enrolled in T-PREP. 

Trinidad State College’s Berg Administration Building. The school opened in 1925 and was the first junior college in Colorado. It has an enrollment of just over 1,900 full- and part-time students. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

T-PREP instructors customize the program so that teacher candidates are prepared to educate students in their particular region, Gutierrez added.

MacKenzie King, who was part of T-PREP through CU Denver at Otero College, learned how to teach her students based on their cultures and backgrounds and how to break down specific lessons according to what they already knew from their experiences outside the classroom. Her professors from Denver took courses and content they had geared toward more urban school environments and tailored them to her rural region, she said.

King also saved a lot of time, money and stress during her four years in the program. 

“I didn’t have to uproot myself and move somewhere else to complete my degree,” said King, who lives in Las Animas and now teaches art in grades K-12 at Cheraw School District, northwest of her home.

She graduated without any student debt, thanks to scholarships and her ability to save money by living with her parents and working on the side. 

T-PREP students pay community college tuition during their first two years of the program and tuition costs for CU Denver the other two years, but CU Denver tuition is cheaper for them with reduced fees since they’re not on campus, Gutierrez said. The program also helps connect students with financial aid, including a fellowship program targeting students who teach in rural districts.

King aims to stay in rural districts throughout her teaching career so that she can continue teaching small classes, deepen relationships with students and families, and continue weaving together a sense of community with her colleagues. She’s already thrived in that kind of environment in her T-PREP courses at Otero College, where small classes gave her more opportunities for one-on-one learning. She graduated alongside one other T-PREP student. 

“It’s so much easier to advocate for yourself in that environment,” King said.

Preparing high school students to teach in hopes they’ll return to their district

By the time a student enrolled in St. Vrain Valley School District’s Pathways to Teaching program — or P-TEACH — graduates high school, they can have 31 college credits toward a degree in education.

It’s become a way for the district of about 33,000 students to both give its students a running start toward a career in the classroom and get its own headstart in developing the next generation of educators, said Diane Lauer, assistant superintendent of priority programs and academic support.

“What better way to make a difference in your community than to come back and teach in your community?” Lauer said. “Teaching is about making a difference in the lives of children every single day.”

The Longmont-based district has continued to build out P-TEACH classes and classroom experiences — with programs in early childhood and elementary education; special education; English as a second language and bilingual education; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education — since it introduced the program four years ago with four college classes offered through CU Denver.

A large lecture area sits empty at the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont on April 1, 2019. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At the time, district leaders realized they had opportunities in many other disciplines, including aerospace, bioscience and engineering, but not in the field central to their own work: education.

Through a series of grants from the education-minded nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado and the Colorado Department of Higher Education, the St. Vrain district developed a teacher training program. Students who are part of the program today can take 10 college-level courses through CU Denver and Front Range Community College. Along with two English classes and an algebra class, those classes include one focused on understanding disabilities; another that explores multicultural education; and one that walks students through methods to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The district holds those classes at its Innovation Center, where it also offers students hands-on learning opportunities in a variety of career paths. Students are offered transportation from the district’s eight high schools.

More than 100 students took classes through the program during the most recent school year, 38 of whom graduated this spring, Lauer said, adding that the program has the most high school students actively preparing to be teachers in Colorado.

The district has also made classes available to paras and nearly 50 have enrolled, learning alongside students.

St. Vrain Valley School District has another option for high school graduates interested in continuing their studies at CU Denver. The credits students rack up during high school transfer to any higher education institution in Colorado. Those who attend CU Denver can apply to a teacher apprentice program that gives them an opportunity as freshmen to work part time in a classroom in a role similar to a para as they assist teachers and students all while taking college classes. The program, which selects eight students each year, will have its first class of seniors this fall. St. Vrain Valley School District will give those students a stipend as they move into student teaching within the district so that they can support themselves as they pay for college.

The goal is to hire those students back. Lauer said St. Vrain hires about 200 educators each year.

P-TEACH has also made strides in helping the district diversify its workforce. Close to 60% of program students are bilingual or will be first-generation college students.

“We have a strong desire to make our teaching population look more like the students we serve,” Lauer said.

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin