How the Center for Urban Education in Denver is Reimagining Teacher Preparation Programs

Revolutionizing Education

Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers proposed a bill that would task their state’s Department of Education and Department of Higher Education with devising strategies for recruiting more teachers of color. Almost half of Colorado students are students of color, while teachers of color comprise about 10 % of all teachers. This mismatch is even wider in Denver Public Schools, the largest district in the state, where 75 % of students are students of color but the share of teachers of color is a mere 27%.

Worse still, enrollment data from Colorado’s teacher preparation programs suggests these numbers are unlikely to inch up anytime soon: The state has not seen growth in the number of Black candidates enrolling in teacher programs in almost a decade, and its seen only a modest increase in the number of Latinx candidates. In the 2017–18 school year, only about 28 % of those enrolled in teacher preparation programs identified as people of color.

Research shows that teachers of color can boost the achievement of students of color—a needed skill in a state where these students face wide gaps in academic performance. However, it is increasingly clear that preparation programs will need to be more forward-thinking if they are going to usher more aspiring teachers of color into the profession.

“Higher education institutions need to reimagine themselves,” said Rosanne Fulton, director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Northern Colorado, a program that helps candidates simultaneously earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license in the areas of early childhood, elementary, or special education. According to Fulton, programs need to tailor their approach to create better on-ramps into teaching for non-traditional candidates who can be shut out of the profession by a wide range of obstacles. Nationally, students of color make up the largest share of first-generation college students, which means they can face unique financial, academic, and logistical hurdles to completing college and earning teaching certification.

CUE’s Approach

CUE actively recruits a wide range of candidates in the Denver area, including paraeducators, community college students, community members, career changers, and classified district staff. Thanks to an influx of one-time funding from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, CUE leaders have been able to recruit candidates through open houses and presentations at local schools, high school classes, and local community colleges. In addition, CUE has devised 2 + 2 partnerships with local community colleges, which allow candidates who earn their associate’s degrees to transfer into CUE and complete their bachelor’s degree in two years.

Outreach efforts are paying off: last year, CUE enrolled 130 students, more than 70 % of whom identify as students of color and over 90 % of whom are first-generation college students. What’s more, 70 % of candidates were transfer students from local community colleges, according to data provided by CUE.

The program also stands out because of its hybrid model, which blends bachelor’s level coursework with clinical experience from day one. CUE is structured to allow candidates to work half-day as paraeducators in schools within seven partner districts, providing one-on-one tutoring, small-group instruction, and eventually whole-group lessons. In the afternoon or evening, students attend courses with faculty who are former teachers, principals, and district leaders. Their classes are offered online, in person, or as courses that integrate face-to-face and online learning. By graduation, candidates clock more than 3,000 hours of paid on-the-job experience, far more than the average new teacher. In most university-based preparation programs, aspiring teachers complete years of theoretically focused coursework before their required student teaching, which can last a mere few weeks.

Importantly, CUE’s split-day model allows candidates to bridge real-life school classroom experience with their coursework every day. “You work from 8 to 12 and then you go to class and you have fresh empirical data to compare and contrast with the theory you learn,” Nicholas Tidd, who graduated from CUE with a certification in elementary education and an endorsement in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) education, told me. “You have these experienced professors who guide you in class about the actual challenges that came up during the day… and help you get better for the next day.” Tidd enrolled at CUE with an associate degree and years of experience in Denver area schools as a paraeducator, a bus driver, and a physical aid for students with disabilities.

By placing candidates in schools, CUE has been able to forge mutually beneficial partnerships that offer CUE candidates opportunities to practice what they learn in the classroom with the support of an experienced mentor. In turn, districts and schools receive a pool of qualified candidates that have gone through rigorous preparation, have learned their host school’s approach and can address local demand.

Blake Hammond, an elementary school principal who hires CUE candidates, told me: “as a school leader, I’ve looked to the program to fulfill our need to find high-quality teachers, bilingual teachers, diverse teachers, and high-quality special education teachers.” About the CUE candidate working as a special education paraeducator at his school, he said, I would love to hire her. Not only [is she] trained in our pedagogy, but she’s trained in how to be a high-quality special education teacher.” While UNC cannot guarantee that all candidates will be hired by their host schools, partnerships with schools have provided opportunities for post-graduation placement. Last May, all CUE candidates were employed upon graduation, with 95 % of candidates hired as full-time teachers.

Challenges Facing Candidates

Non-traditional candidates can face a number of hurdles to completing a degree and certification. Chief among them: finances. While more than 90 % of CUE candidates benefit from federal financial aid, there are costs associated with attendance that are not covered by this support, such as living expenses, transcript fees, and state certification and licensing exams. Paraeducators’ average hourly earnings in the Denver area are $13 an hour, or about $27,000 a year for full-time work. Working only four to five hours each day, CUE candidates only earn a fraction of that. This can make it challenging to live in the Denver area (where the cost of living is higher than the national average) let alone finance a four-year education and a teaching credential.

These challenges are compounded for students who do not qualify for federal financial aid. Jennifer Ruiz, a first-generation college student and an aspiring bilingual teacher, saw finances as a major barrier. “When I first started, I was most worried about the cost,” she told me. Ruiz does not qualify for federal financial aid because she has Temporary Protected Status (TPS), so CUE had to take a more hands-on approach. “Right away they pulled me in and asked me what I needed help with,” she said. CUE staff helped her apply to outside scholarships, allowing her to graduate without debt. In addition to outside scholarships, students sometimes take part-time jobs. It also helps that CUE is based out of a satellite campus of the University of Northern Colorado, which saves students on some student fees associated with the main campus.

Other barriers, according to Fulton, involve navigating the higher education system and rigorous coursework. To this end, CUE offers one-on-one support, starting with helping students go through UNC’s holistic application process. They help candidates map their path to graduation by taking into account any credits they are bringing with them. The program also matches candidates with mentors who visit their classrooms to oversee their progress. Beyond these supports, CUE features smaller class sizes and professors who are able to differentiate assignments and timelines to accommodate candidates’ needs. The CUE faculty is also racially diverse, which offers another layer of support. “These students need high-touch support to make it work but by the third and fourth semesters with us, they are flying,” Fulton told me.

Challenges Facing CUE

The challenge for programs like CUE is that offering the types of intensive supports non-traditional candidates need is not cheap. Programs need staff who can provide hands-on support and mentoring as well as staff who can coordinate relationships with districts and schools. They also need the ability to offer stipends for living expenses, exam fees, child care, transportation, and other unforeseen costs. Some programs have been able to offer these types of financial supports by drawing from a mix of state, district, or philanthropic funds. However, these funds are rare and often change from year to year, forcing programs to scale up and scale down their programming in response.

In 2018, CUE received a one-time $125,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Higher Education as part of the state’s $2 million PLAN Into Action Grant program, which was devised to address critical teacher shortages in rural and urban areas; content areas such as early childhood education and care, mathematics, science, and special education; and racial diversity. As noted above, these one-time funds went a long way to support CUE’s recruitment efforts. They were also used to jump-start the Urban Education Leadership Council, a Denver-area community of practice on issues of urban education, as well as the Principal’s Cohort, a group of 20 school leaders that organized open houses at their districts to recruit candidates and gave strategic planning guidance to CUE. CUE also used the Action Grant money to host a conference on urban education issues that was attended by over 350 teachers, school leaders, and community members.

As preparation programs look to broaden and diversify their pool of teacher candidates, CUE’s work shows there are several improvements they should consider. They ought to recruit candidates in the field, forge partnerships with schools and districts, organize paid clinical experiences, prioritize mentorship, and offer strong academic supports. At the same time, state decision-makers should ensure that aspiring teachers have the financial support they need to take the risk of pursuing a degree and certification. “We need a heightened sensitivity on the part of decision-makers about what it really takes to support first-generation college students, students of color, and students who are traditionally underrepresented in teacher preparation programs,” said Fulton.


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