Article by Steve Brandick
Paraprofessionals make great teachers! That was just an assumption back in 1994 when the Los Angeles Unified School District Paraeducator Career Ladder was established. It is now fact. The program began as a union and management collaborative intended to improve the economic situation of low-income employees while developing a pool of minority teacher candidates to help ease a severe shortage. It has grown into a comprehensive career pathway which includes high school teacher academies and a specially designed teacher credentialing program. In the process about 3,500 paraeducators have become teachers and thousands of high school students have been introduced to the profession. There are now principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, teacher advisers, department and grade level chairs, counselors, psychologists and a large number of effective teachers working in the schools who would not be there without the support of the Career Ladder. These educators are 90% minority, have a five-year retention rate of over 80% and have been shown to be more effective as teachers.
When the program was first initiated, there was much discussion about paraeducators, their potential as teachers and the barriers that kept many of them from furthering their education. Some of those issues were straight forward and we tackled them at the outset. The cost of tuition, which was significantly lower in 1994 than it is now, was addressed through tuition reimbursements and scholarships. The Los Angeles Unified School District dedicated substantial funds in 1994 and then in 1995, the State of California established the Paraprofessional Teacher Training Program which has provided scholarships ever since. Advisement was addressed by establishing the position of On-campus Adviser at the local California State Universities to advise paraeducators who were enrolled at a community college or not yet enrolled anywhere. Many of the candidates had taken a lot of courses at multiple institutions without much focus. The On-campus Adviser helped them sort it all out and design a credential pathway.
Other issues were more complex and have taken years to address. A key to the Career Ladder success was the fact that participants worked as aides in classroom settings similar to the ones they would encounter as teachers. However, established credentialing programs required the same preparation for all candidates no matter what their background. This was because the agencies that accredited and approved those programs had very specific requirements that did not allow for tailoring preparation for specific populations. That meant that the program of study for a paraeducator with ten years of experience working with and observing veteran teachers would be the same as that received by a person who had never been in a classroom in any role other than that of a student.
We struggled with this for years, but never gave up. From 1997-2003, the Career Ladder Office collaborated with California State University, Los Angeles on the Apprentice Teacher Program. Run as a pilot program, it was allowed to make significant alterations in the traditional credentialing program. One of those alterations was the shortening of student teaching from two quarters to ten weeks. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but we actually learned that paraeducators needed and wanted a longer, more targeted student teaching experience, not a shorter one.
In 2007, the Career Ladder Office won a federal Transition to Teaching grant which allowed us to build on the experience of the pilot. This time around, we focused on special education and mathematics candidates. Instead of shortening student teaching, we lengthened it to an entire year. We also created a master/apprentice relationship between the teacher candidate and the supervising teacher and designed a curriculum that used a set of structured activities to guide participants from the role of assistant to that of a teacher. As a result, we have succeeded in establishing a new model for teacher preparation. The teachers who graduated from this program have been supremely prepared for the challenges of running their own classroom on the first day on their new job. That curriculum and program design will be available free of charge by June 2012. A link will be placed at www.pathways2professions.org.
At the moment, there is less interest in the teaching profession than there was five years ago. The economic situation and scarcity of jobs have had a strong impact. The number of paraeducators participating in the Career Ladder Program has gone from 5,000 to only 300 in the past few years. All of the current candidates are pursuing careers in the most severe shortage areas of math, science and special education. The teacher academies lost their district funding at the start of 2011-2012, but the great majority had already been institutionalized within their school program and are continuing to thrive. The apprentice model has been established. For all of the challenges, the Career Ladder Program is still in place, conceptually very strong with results to prove it and ready to expand when the inevitable baby boom teacher shortage hits in a few years.