St. Vrain seeks to grow teacher rolls by sparking students' interest
By Amy Bounds, Daily Camera
The St. Vrain Valley School District is tackling a statewide teacher shortage by creating a grow-your-own program for high school students.
The district's goal is to inspire and prepare students to go into teaching, especially in hard-to-fill areas of high school math and science, bilingual education, early childhood education and special education.
"This is a great way to create a pipeline of teachers and paraprofessionals from our own district," said Diane Lauer, St. Vrain's assistant superintendent of priority programs.
For students, the program is an opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school and try out teaching as a career through internships.
"Giving students experience now, while they're in high school, allows them to see themselves in their own future," Lauer said.
St. Vrain initially designed a program to encourage high school students to go into early childhood education with a goal of increasing the candidate pool for its 24 preschools.
About five months ago, the district was awarded a $125,000 grant through Early Milestones Colorado to help start the new P-TEACH program.
Then last week, St. Vrain was awarded a second $125,000 grant, this one from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, to expand the program to include more teaching areas.
St. Vrain is one of 17 school districts, boards of cooperative educational services and educator training programs awarded a total of nearly $2 million in "Plan Into Action" grants for projects designed to recruit and retain educators.
While St. Vrain Valley doesn't have a shortage of candidates for most teaching positions, Lauer said, the P-TEACH program is targeting the harder-to-fill areas. of STEM, special education and culturally and linguistically diverse education.
The early childhood education program is starting in the spring with an estimated 30 juniors and seniors, while classes that cover the other focus areas are expected to start in the fall.
The district expects to enroll about 60 students a year and is partnering with Front Range Community College, the University of Colorado at Denver and Google.
The program's coordinator is Wendy Howenstein, a St. Vrain teacher who was a first-generation college student and is bilingual after growing up in Puerto Rico.
For the P-TEACH job, she became an adjunct professor at CU Denver so she can teach the classes, which will be held at the St. Vrain Innovation Center.
The program will include 12 concurrent enrollment college credits in education and 12 college credits in academic core classes. One of the classes will provide field experience in a district school.
"The goal underneath it all is to get them excited about teaching and see it as this incredibly dynamic career they can pursue," Howenstein said.
Along with paying her salary, the grants will provide money for campus visits and paid internships after school or in the summer.
In recruiting, Howenstein said, she's encouraged both high-achieving students and those who haven't had the best school experiences to enroll.
After completing the program and graduating from high school, students will have enough college credit for a paraprofessional, or teacher's aide, license. They also will be only a few credits shy of a preschool director license, or can start college with several core classes already completed.
"Everyone may have a different path," Howenstein said.
She said she's had a good response to her recruitment efforts, which include working with high school counselors and teachers.
One of her connections was with Longmont High social studies teacher Chris Barnes, who sponsors the school's Arriba club.
About a dozen students from the Hispanic culture and service club recently visited the Innovation Center to learn more about the program.
Junior Yesenia Solis-Zamora said she's considering teaching as a future career because "kids have a special place in my heart."
Plus, she said, she likes that the college credits she would earn could transfer to another school, keeping her college options open, while letting her try teaching while still in high school.
"I want to experience it," she said.
Classmate Prisilla Enriquez-Soto said she's planning to enroll in the program in January because teaching seems like it could be a good fit.
"My teachers have really impacted my life," she said. "It's something I could see myself doing."
As someone who is bilingual, she said, she could help students who are new to the country and still learning English, as well as helping their parents.
"I can change languages if a student is struggling," she said. "I can be hands-on with the different ways kids learn."