California’s effort to turn school staff into teachers starts to pay off

January 8, 2020

Ashley Garland works with preschoolers at Edward Kemble Elementary School in Sacramento. Garland was part of a state program that turns classified school workers into teachers.

A state program that recruits classroom aides, food service workers and bus drivers — who are already on campus and invested in local schools — and trains them to become teachers is one innovative way California is trying to combat its teacher shortage.

The California Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program has helped transform 299 school employees into teachers, with thousands more in the pipeline, according to a new report from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. 

Legislators have approved $45 million for the program since 2016, as part of an ongoing effort to address a teacher shortage that has left many classrooms without a fully credentialed educator. Finding teachers, especially those teaching science, math, special education and English language learners, has become a daunting challenge, particularly for school districts in areas with high housing and other costs.

Ashley Garland, 28, earned one of the coveted spots in Sacramento City Unified’s classified employee credentialing program in 2017. She had been working as a special education instructional aide for Sacramento City Unified for four years and in the after-school program for more than 10 years when a co-worker encouraged her to apply for the program. After a little more than two years in the program, Garland has earned her bachelor’s degree and is less than six months away from completing her teacher preparation courses and teacher training. 

Garland said she originally wanted a career in public relations and advertising, and never considered teaching. “The more I accepted my talents and the way the kids respond to me, the more I believed I could do it. It’s like a passion and doesn’t feel like work.”

The California Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program offers competitive grants to school districts to pay tuition, fees and other costs for employees who want to complete a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential. While in the program they continue working for the district before transitioning to entry-level teachers. The program has offered 2,260 potential teachers a spot in the program in two separate rounds of grants.

The program elevates people who already are passionate about working with students, said Rigel Massaro, of Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for equality in public policy, including education policy.

“Dollars to doughnuts they are going to be retained, because they understand what it is like,” she said at a California Commission on Teacher Credentialing meeting in November. “They got into teaching because they have already been on the campus or in the classroom for many years, often.”

Prospective teachers must have completed at least two years of college to be eligible for the program. Garland had dropped out of college as a junior because she couldn’t get into needed classes and couldn’t afford to continue going to school while working full-time to pay bills. 

Garland takes classes from Brandman University in the evenings online. After taking the required credentialing tests she will earn an education specialist certification that will allow her to teach special education students.

She now teaches both special education and general education students in a classroom with another teacher at Edward Kemble Elementary in Sacramento. The majority of students at the school are Hispanic or African-American, with 87 percent eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. 

After school is out each day Garland returns to her job in the district’s after-school program, where she is the visual and performing arts program manager and teaches step dance classes.

Garland said she decided to be a special education teacher — an area that has a dire shortage of teachers — because her 25-year-old brother has special needs. “It’s something close to home for me,” she said. “This is where I belong. I’m good at it and I’m passionate about it.” 

The number of teachers earning full credentials in California is rising, but not fast enough to keep up with demand. In 2017-18 the credentialing commission issued 16,518 preliminary and full teacher credentials. However, that year school districts statewide had 24,000 teacher openings, according to the credentialing commission. To fill all those jobs school districts have had to rely on teachers with intern credentials, who teach classes while completing university coursework and required tests, and those with even less preparation who work with emergency-style permits.

The classified employee program pays school districts $4,000 annually for each participant, with most of the money spent on the tuition, books and other education costs. Districts can use some of the money to administer the program.

School employees in the program have five years to complete it. By this past July 299 program participants entered classrooms as fully credentialed teachers, according to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

“This is an excellent program and has yielded excellent results that are long term,” said James Brescia, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.

The San Luis Obispo County office was among the 45 school districts, county offices of education and consortiums of districts selected to participate in the program. The county’s school districts have gained a half-dozen new teachers through the program and have an additional 52 working toward bachelor’s degrees and credentials, Brescia said.

One of the positive results is a more diverse workforce of teachers with similar family incomes and ethnicities as the county’s students, Brescia said.

About 42 percent of participants statewide are Hispanic, while 31 percent are white, according to the credentialing commission report. That is considerably different from the state’s overall teacher population. In 2017-18, 62 percent of teachers surveyed by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing identified themselves as white, while 21 percent identified themselves as Hispanic.

While some districts were unable to fill all the spots in their programs with school staff, many had waiting lists. Brescia said the San Luis Obispo County program is full and that district leaders want to put more staff members through the program.

A dozen employees of other government agencies called the county office to inquire about applying for the program. “We had other non-teaching employees in other public agencies — city and county employees — that we had to turn down,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate that.”

Brescia would like to see legislators fund more rounds of the program and make other public employees eligible for it.

Los Angeles Unified has 45 of its classified staff in the program, including an office manager, food service workers and a bus driver, said Bryan Johnson, director of certificated workforce management at the district. So far, five of the participants have been hired as teachers, he said.

“By enabling us to continue to support these teachers while working toward their credentialing goal, we are also addressing a key barrier to entry to our profession, as our members are able to earn a living as a teacher, maintain their health benefits for their families,” he said.

The California Legislature has approved more than $200 million for teacher preparation and retention programs in the last five years to combat the state’s teacher shortage. In addition to the classified employee credentialing program, that funding has been allocated for special education teacher recruitment and teacher residencies, which allow potential teachers to serve an apprenticeship under the guidance of a veteran teacher while completing required coursework

The governor’s budget also included $90 million to help recruit and retain science, math and special education teachers and teachers at high-needs schools.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who introduced the legislation that created the program, said the program accomplishes two of the state’s education priorities — getting more qualified teachers into classrooms and diversifying the teacher workforce. McCarty is chairman of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance.

“If this can produce 2,000 teachers, that is a third of the number of classrooms that have uncredentialed teachers today,” he said. “Having a qualified teacher in the classroom has a big correlation to student success.”

McCarty said he expects legislators will approve another round of funding for the program in the 2020-21 budget.

 “It looks like we will have some opportunities for some smart investments and this looks like one of those,” he said.

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