Addressing Teacher Shortages: Schools Seek Solutions from Custodians, Bus Drivers, and Assistants

MORGAN CITY, La. – The echoing jingle of keys accompanies Jenna Gros as she strolls through the corridors of Wyandotte Elementary School in St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. The collection of keys clinks as she sweeps, cleans, organizes, and attends to various tasks, and her presence is well-known among the children. When they hear the familiar sound, they enthusiastically call out, “Miss Jenna!”

Gros holds the position of head custodian at Wyandotte, located in the heart of this small town in southern Louisiana. However, she is also on a journey to become a teacher.

Back in August 2020, she enthusiastically enrolled in an innovative program aimed at transforming individuals employed in educational settings into aspiring educators. This program offers the opportunity to attain an undergraduate degree in education at an affordable cost. The program’s premise is rooted in the belief that there exists a wealth of untapped potential among those currently employed within schools — individuals who serve as classroom aides, cafeteria workers, afterschool program staff, and beyond. By empowering these dedicated individuals to transition into teaching roles, the program seeks to address the pressing shortage of educators that is particularly acute in certain districts across the nation, including rural regions like the one found here.

Over the span of two and a half years, the teacher training initiative orchestrated by the non-profit organization Reach University has undergone remarkable expansion, witnessing a surge in applicants from a mere 50 to approximately 1,000 individuals. This influx of aspiring educators primarily hails from rural regions across states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and California. Operating under the innovative paradigm of an “apprenticeship degree,” the program involves a nominal fee of $75 per month for enrolled students. Substantial financial backing is derived from Pell Grants and philanthropic contributions. Notably, the program is structured around virtual classrooms and is led by esteemed, award-winning educators. Moreover, participating school districts commit to integrating students into classrooms for 15 weekly hours, thereby enriching their experiential training.

Reflecting on the endeavor, Joe Ross, the President of Reach University, emphasized the significant yet overlooked wellspring of talent that has the potential to immensely benefit the teaching profession. He remarked, “These individuals embody passion, determination, and intellect. It is disheartening that a mere piece of paper stands as a barrier.”

While the pursuit of teacher candidates from local communities traces back to the 1990s, the landscape has witnessed an exponential surge in such programs over the past half-decade. Danielle Edwards, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Workforce Development at Old Dominion University in Virginia, noted the proliferation of these “grow your own” initiatives. Programs similar to Reach’s not only target school personnel who lack college degrees or education-related credentials but also extend their scope to retired professionals, military veterans, college students, and even K-12 students, with participation commencing as early as middle school.

The concept of “nurturing local talent” has surged in popularity, according to Edwards, in part due to research indicating that approximately 85% of educators teach within a 40-mile radius of their hometown. While the momentum behind these programs is undeniable, there remains an ambiguity surrounding the ultimate impact and retention rates of teachers produced by such initiatives.

On a broader scale, the country is grappling with a staggering 36,500 teacher vacancies and an additional 163,000 positions being occupied by educators who lack the full qualifications, as estimated by Tuan Nguyen, an Associate Professor of Education at Kansas State University. Within the context of Wyandotte, Principal Celeste Pipes finds herself overseeing a faculty of 26, with three educators lacking official certification.

Pipes lamented, “We find ourselves plucking individuals from various walks of life to fill the gaps within our classrooms.” In surrounding parishes, which lie approximately 85 miles west of New Orleans, more enticing compensation packages are being offered, often exceeding the starting salary of $46,000 she can provide. In some instances, these incentives even extend to covering the costs of health insurance.

Shaping the Landscape: Reach University and Breaking Barriers
Statistical evidence underscores the detrimental impact of a shortage of qualified educators, leading to compromised student achievements and escalated expenses for school districts. This instability within the workforce also reverberates through the school environment, as Pipes elucidates, “With experienced individuals who have dedicated years to this institution, we maintain a solid understanding of its functioning.”

As Gros navigates the corridors, her interactions extend beyond custodial tasks. She swoops in to rescue a frightened child from a pesky fly, deftly ties a first-grader’s shoelaces, and engages a third-grader in a discussion about their math assignments. Her colleagues have long recognized her composed and supportive demeanor, prompting a teacher’s aide at Wyandotte to introduce Gros to the potential of Reach University.

Growing up in this very town, Gros harbored a lifelong aspiration to become an educator, a dream cultivated by her father’s occupation as a mechanic in the oil industry. However, with three children to care for and a modest annual salary of $22,000, her dream remained financially elusive. The affordability and adaptability of Reach’s program swiftly transformed the narrative: Her district embraced her commitment to spend 15 weekly hours in the classroom, guiding and tutoring students. Her pursuit of online coursework is strategically balanced during evenings and weekends.

Moreover, existing staff members are integrated into the retirement system, a provision that recognizes their accumulated years of service, thus contributing to their pension. For Gros, who has dedicated 18 years to her educational institution, this aspect weighed significantly in her decision-making process.

Deeply Rooted Commitment: Sustaining Rural Education
According to Pipes, individuals like Gros possess an inherent understanding of the essence of this rural enclave—emphasizing family values, a strong church presence, and a shared love for outdoor pursuits such as hunting. Furthermore, those with strong community ties tend to exhibit higher retention rates, as highlighted by Chandler Smith, the superintendent overseeing the West Baton Rouge Parish School System located a few hours away.

While Smith’s district ranks second in the state for teacher compensation, it grapples with a persistent challenge in attracting and retaining educators, facing a notable 15% teacher turnover rate in the previous year. Presently, the district is experiencing a transformative shift through Reach, with 29 teacher candidates ready to embark on their journey.

In neighboring West Baton Rouge Parish, Jackie Noble enters the Brusly Elementary school building at 6:45 p.m. Her day, which began as a special education teacher’s aide at 3:30 p.m., included tending to her granddaughter, quality moments with her husband, and a quick stop at McDonald’s for chicken nuggets, a steaming cup of coffee, and a refreshing Coke to fuel her through the evening’s classes. Some of Reach’s courses extend until 11 p.m., accommodating her dedication.

Noble once served as a bus driver in this region for five years, her aspirations set on becoming an educator. Gathering her resolve to explore avenues for joining the profession, she was confronted with the daunting prospect of expenses ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 annually over a minimum of four years. “I couldn’t even afford the cost of obtaining my transcript, as it was nearly $100,” she recounts.

Empowering Dreams: Transforming Jobs into Degrees
Upon learning about Reach University and its remarkably affordable monthly tuition of $75, Noble couldn’t believe her ears. “It felt like a dream come true,” she recalls.

Joe Ross, the visionary behind Reach University, frequently encounters sentiments akin to Noble’s. Many individuals express a common refrain: “I was faced with the dilemma of choosing between pursuing a job or obtaining a degree.”

Ross reflects on this challenge and poses a transformative question: “What if we could eliminate this dilemma altogether?” With unwavering resolve, he envisions a future where jobs seamlessly evolve into educational milestones.

Empowering School Staff: Bridging the Education Gap
Within the tranquil confines of Brusly Elementary, Noble readies herself in a classroom for the upcoming session. Ensuring her meal is discreetly placed off-camera, she meticulously logs in from multiple devices – her phone, laptop, and desktop – a precaution against any potential internet glitches in this rural area.

Tonight marks the culmination of her course, “Children with Special Needs: History and Practice.” Across various states, her 24 classmates join the virtual session, exchanging smiles and waves. Over the past weeks, they’ve taken turns delving into presentations about diverse disabilities, from dyslexia and brain injuries to deafness. Noble had her turn too, focusing on assistive technologies for children with physical disabilities.

The origins of Reach University trace back to 2006, initially as a certification program for aspiring educators with degrees seeking credentials. Over time, its scope expanded, offering pathways for teachers transitioning to administrative roles and advanced degrees in teaching and leadership. In 2020, Reach University embarked on a groundbreaking journey, launching a program tailored for dedicated school staff without formal degrees.

Kim Eckert, a distinguished former recipient of the Louisiana Teacher of the Year award and currently serving as Reach University’s dean, found herself compelled by the program’s vision. In her former role as a high school educator specializing in special education, Eckert recognized the limited avenues for classroom aides within her school to enhance their skill set. To address this gap, she initiated monthly workshops tailored exclusively to their needs.

As the Reach program expanded its reach, Eckert tapped into her wealth of experience, handpicking individuals from her teacher-of-the-year cohort. Her selection criteria prioritized those well-acquainted with the intricacies of classroom dynamics and capable of exemplifying the qualities of exceptional teaching. She consciously veered away from candidates yet to substantiate their aptitude in the classroom, regardless of their prestigious degrees from renowned universities. “The belief that anyone can be a teacher solely due to their experiences as a student is a misconception,” she asserted, highlighting the nuanced nature of effective teaching.

The concept of dedicating 15 weekly hours to “in-class training,” encompassing activities like teacher observation, student tutoring, and lesson planning, is strategically devised to grant students the opportunity for immediate application of their learning. This setup eliminates the typical delay of several months or years before practical implementation of theoretical knowledge. Michelle Cottrell Williams, a distinguished Reach administrator and Virginia’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, reminisces about a classroom discussion involving Disney’s depiction of historical events versus factual accounts. Astonishingly, one of her students, a classroom aide, shared this insight with fifth graders she was assisting the very next day.

Noble intends to carry over lessons learned about student management from her experience as a bus driver to her classroom role. Handling up to 70 students while navigating speeds of 45 miles an hour, she feels confident that overseeing 20 students in a classroom setting is a feasible endeavor.

Eagerly anticipating the prospect of having her own classroom, she envisions a role where she holds complete responsibility. With the opportunity to spend around eight hours a day alongside students, she recognizes the immense potential to leave a profound and lasting impact on their lives.

Anticipating Positive Outcomes
In May, Reach University celebrated the commencement of its inaugural class of educators, a cohort of 13 individuals from Louisiana who brought prior credits into the program. The organization’s first complete group is set to proudly cross the stage in the spring of 2024.

Encouraging signs are emerging. Across the nation, roughly half of aspiring teachers successfully pass their state’s teaching licensure examination; in contrast, over 60% of the 13 Reach graduates achieved this milestone. Each of them secured employment opportunities, not just within their local community, but within the very schools they had been actively contributing to.

However, according to Roddy Theobald, Deputy Director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and a researcher at the American Institutes for Research, there remains a significant need for extensive research into the efficacy of “grow your own” initiatives. “There is a dearth of empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of these educational pathways,” he emphasized.

Navigating Challenges and Exploring Effectiveness
One of the pressing challenges is that these programs often lack precise alignment with the specific requirements of schools, according to him. Some states grapple with shortages exclusively in certain domains, such as special education, STEM, or elementary education. “At times, these initiatives might yield an abundance of credentialed educators for courses that the state doesn’t actually require,” he noted.

Pioneering the investigation into “grow your own” programs, Edwards is currently delving into whether educators who complete these programs exhibit effectiveness within the classroom and maintain their positions in the field over the long term. Additionally, she’s exploring the diversity of these educators and their placement in hard-to-staff schools.

With millions of dollars being invested by states in this strategy, Edwards highlighted the concerning lack of knowledge regarding its effectiveness. “We could be channeling substantial resources into something that might or might not yield results,” she cautioned.

Ross, representing Reach University, outlined plans to conduct research aimed at evaluating the effectiveness and job retention rates of their newly trained teachers. In terms of addressing specific labor shortages within schools, Reach has established partnerships with organizations like TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the University of West Alabama. These collaborations facilitate individuals in pursuing higher-level courses within challenging-to-fill subjects such as high school mathematics. While Reach evaluates teacher vacancies when partnering with school districts, their approach isn’t precisely tailored to align with the district’s specific staffing needs, Ross explained. He stated, “We are optimistic that the figures will naturally balance out.”

In Louisiana, Ross expressed confidence that Reach University could substantially alleviate the statewide teacher vacancy numbers. An impressive 84% of all parishes have engaged with Reach trainees, enrolling 650 teachers-in-training. This enrollment constitutes over a quarter of the statewide teacher vacancy tally, which stands at 2,500.

“We are rapidly approaching a stage where our efforts are significantly contributing to addressing the issue within that specific state,” he commented.

His organization is additionally exploring collaborations with states like Louisiana to leverage Department of Labor funds for teacher apprenticeships. Presently, approximately 16 states have established such apprenticeship initiatives. Thanks to a recent Labor Department regulation, teacher apprenticeships are now eligible to access substantial federal job-training funding. In this regard, Reach is engaged in discussions to tap into a portion of these funds. According to Ross, this approach could facilitate offering the programs to students at no cost while reducing reliance on philanthropic support.

Doubling her Earnings

Maintaining a straight-A record from her initial semester, Jenna Gros, the head custodian, is set to graduate debt-free in May 2024. Her plan is to continue teaching at the same elementary school where her anticipated salary will nearly double.

For Gros, the profound impact a teacher can have on shaping a child’s future is a driving force. “A teacher is like a nurturer, equipping them with the tools they’ll require down the road,” she explained.

Confident in her ability to be that guiding figure, Gros concludes with determination, “I am convinced I can do it.”