School districts throughout Wisconsin have had difficulty filling some teaching positions and recruiting diverse but licensed candidates. So, rather than waiting for certified applicants to come to them, many districts – including the Sun Prairie Area School District – have embarked on programs to train their own staff members to become certified teachers.
The Sun Prairie Area School District (SPASD) Grow Your Own Teacher Program puts full-time support staff in the district in classes at Edgewood College to earn a teaching certification, providing financial assistance and mentoring support along the way.
Grow Your Own is aimed at increasing diversity within the district, said Employee Relations Manager Tracey Caradine. There’s already a shortage of teachers – minority teachers in particular – while the number of minority students enrolled in the district rises, Caradine said.
For example, 10 years ago, 4.4 percent of SPASD students were Asian, according to enrollment data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. That number had more than doubled to 9.1 percent in the 2016-17 school year. In 2006-7, 4.6 percent of students were Hispanic; last year, that number was 8.8 percent.
“You want your workers to look like your public, and so that’s what we’re doing for our kids,” Caradine said.
Staff from groups underrepresented in certain areas, such as minority teachers, male teachers interested in elementary education, or bilingual employees interested in teaching English Language Learning (ELL) – are eligible for the Grow Your Own Teacher Program, Caradine said. They must already have a bachelor’s degree and be interested in teaching in a hard to fill areas, such as special education, math or science.
Currently the program, in its third year at SPASD, has five participants, with the first scheduled to earn his teaching certification in the summer, according to Caradine.
One of those participants is Lakeisha Gavins, a special education assistant at Patrick Marsh Middle School. Gavins, who has a background in human services and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, is pursuing a special education license through the Grow Your Own Program.
Gavins said such a program is important because it can help to expand the diversity in the district.
She grew up in Chicago where she said her teachers all looked like her. When she moved to Madison in middle school, she encountered the opposite.
“That affected my relationships, and it affected my academics,” Gavins said. “I feel like sometimes students respond differently if they feel like you have something in common with them, so I would just like to see the program grow larger to make sure we’re accommodating families and that we’re open to each other’s culture.”
Supporting future teachers
The school district, Edgewood College and the student each pay a third of the tuition for the Grow Your Own Teacher Program, with that tuition considered a loan until the student has worked as a teacher in the district for three years.
In addition to financial support, Caradine said each student in the program gets a teacher mentor who helps guide them through their studies.
=Like all new teachers in the district, when they begin their first teaching position, they continue to have a mentor for at least two years.
Gavins said she feels supported her family, the school district and Edgewood College to pursue her teaching certification as she finishes her first semester in the program.
Being able to pursue a special education teaching license will help her interact with more students and families in the community, Gavins said.
“You’re the number one advocate when you’re a special ed teacher, so when it comes to [individual education plan] meetings, you work in conjunction with those families much more closely than an assistant would,” she explained. “I feel like that role expands as an advocate and an ally for that student and for the family.”
Investing in staff
Supporting staff through programs like Grow Your Own and other professional development helps aid the district’s recruitment and retention efforts, Caradine said.
“We’re actually investing in them, and we’re showing them that we value you and we feel that you have the potential to move forward,” she said.
In offering the program to staff who are already within the district, and often the Sun Prairie community, Caradine said the program naturally finds participants who are vested in the community and school district.
When an educator stays in one district for between three and six years after beginning a position, it’s likely they will be at that district for most, if not all, of their teaching career, Caradine added.
In the future, Caradine said the district hopes to expand Grow Your Own, both by adding more staff to the program to pursue teaching licenses and by offering training in special education and bilingual education to already certified teachers.
“We’re looking at expanding that way so we can really cultivate from within,” she said.