News Class struggle

A teacher shortage has districts looking for alternative ways to staff their classrooms

Like many schools in San Antonio, Bernice Hart Elementary in northeast Austin grew exponentially last year, adding 200 new students. Elia Diaz-Ortiz, principal of Hart, was forced to hire and support 13 new teachers. In addition to recruiting them from university programs and other schools, she opted to fill two positions with Texas Teaching Fellows. “The kind of support the program provides with additional individuals supporting them with strategies and areas critical to teaching is so beneficial,” Diaz-Ortiz says.

A confluence of factors — rising student enrollment, the retirement of veteran teachers, and the flight of new teachers — is causing a teacher shortage, especially in areas in which a quarter of the teachers don’t have a major or minor in the subject: math, science, and bilingual and special education. The shortfalls are increasing faster than traditional four-year education programs can produce credentialed teachers. To fill the vacuum, nearly 100 programs, all approved by the State Board of Educator Certification, are training professionals from outside the education field and turning them into teachers, frequently placing them in rapidly growing urban areas such as many of the districts in San Antonio.

In Texas, alternative-certification programs are deregulated, which has created fierce competition for candidates. The programs include rigorous university-based programs, such as those in the Alamo Community College District, which allow candidates to earn a master’s degree after one or two years. The State Board of Educator Certification has even approved some internet-based programs and those with limited or no access to children, whose candidates receive their certification after one year.

The range of program quality makes it difficult for school administrators to assess if their candidates can teach well. “There are so many programs to keep them all straight. It’s hard to know how teachers are trained and if they’re a good match for our learning community,” says Diaz-Ortiz.

We have to be cautious of not panicking and filling our positions with unprepared teachers

– Blanche Desjean-Perrotta

To help administrators like Diaz-Ortiz in recruiting and training quality teachers for tough-to-fill subject areas, the Texas Education Agency is endorsing Texas Teaching Fellows. A division of The New Teacher Project, a national non-profit organization that consults for educational institutions in recruiting and training, Teaching Fellows differs from most alternative programs in its selectivity. It requires more than a bachelor’s degree and a passing test score of 240 out of 300 on a content-area exam, and looks for leaders and mid-career professionals who show achievement in their previous fields. The idea is that good teachers who will stay in the classroom are people who have shown talent and success in other sectors, will transfer that success to the classroom, and commit to a long-term career change.

“We believe that quality is determined by selectivity to get the very best people in the classroom,” says Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, partner of Training & Certification for Texas Teaching Fellows.

The Teaching Fellows’ selection model is starkly different from the immediate acceptance process that some programs use. Teaching Fellows candidates undergo an all-day interview in which they teach a lesson, discuss and write solutions to real-life teaching dilemmas, and undergo a one-on-one interview. Local district principals and education experts determine whether the candidate is accepted. Last year in its fledgling Dallas and Austin programs, Teaching Fellows accepted only one of 11 applicants. The Fellows who were accepted had diverse past careers ranging from the armed forces, to social work, theater direction, information technology, and the sciences.

Now expanding to serve San Antonio-area districts, Teaching Fellows has flourished in major cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland since 1997. The New York Teaching Fellows consistently retains 90 percent of fellows who return for their second year as noted in the U.S. Department of Education Report “Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification.” Initial unpublished research by The New Teacher Project shows New York fellows achieve more student success faster than other novice teachers from alternative-certification programs, says Hurd. And so far, administrators in Austin and Dallas are supportive. “I’ve seen a higher rate of success with Teaching Fellows teachers `than with other novice teachers`. They have initiative, positive attitude, a desire to work with high-needs students, and supportive mentors,” says Diaz-Ortiz.

During an intensive six-week summer institute, fellows student-teach in the mornings and attend classes in the evenings. In the fall, they enter their own classrooms as first-year teachers while attending bi-monthly professional-development courses according to subject area led by local district teachers and administrators. Mentors and program directors frequently visit classrooms to help fellows improve their teaching methods. Fellows also have the increased benefit of learning from other new teachers. “To have the resource of other fellows to bounce ideas that work off of is invaluable,” says Hector Garza, an Austin-based Fellow who teaches bilingual first grade.

While the Teaching Fellows selection and induction is more stringent than most alternative-certification programs, San Antonio districts remain wary of the program. “We select our teachers based on credentials and on an individual basis. Teaching Fellows have no priority over other Edgewood applicants,” an Edgewood ISD spokesperson says of their new partnership with the program.

Blanche Desjean-Perrotta, associate professor of Early Childhood Education at UTSA, is also nervous about quick-fix alternative-certification programs. “We have strong `university` programs here in the city,” she says. “We have to be cautious of not panicking and filling our positions with unprepared teachers.”

Yet, 20 percent of new teachers in the U.S. leave the classroom within the first three years because of cursory first-year mentoring, according to the National Teacher Recruitment Clearinghouse, a national, non-profit, research organization. Faced with these statistics, school administrators may have to examine alternatives to the traditional teacher pool. A higher rate of success in retention can be attributed to Teach-ing Fellows’ strong mentoring program. “Teach-ing Fellows have felt a lot of support and training in content areas,” says Dr. Tammy Kreuz, assistant director for Educator Quality Initiatives for the University of Texas. “Principals of Teaching Fellows are excited about the success of the program.”


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