When College of Education Dean Kimberly A. Lawless tells people, “We are changing education by educating for change,” she means it. More than words, this mantra has launched a new vision within the college to identify the needs in communities across the commonwealth and then work to meet them.
This drive has led to the design of the Teacher-in-Residence Program (TRP), a pilot program nearing launch in the Reading School District. The fourth-largest school district in Pennsylvania, Reading is a Title 1 school district (schools with 40% of the student population that comes from low-income households). Ninety-three percent of students in Reading qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 25% of students are English-Language Learners.
“We have a huge teacher shortage here in Pennsylvania, and students are being negatively impacted by the fact that many of them are being taught by substitute teachers instead of certified teachers,” said Javier Lopez, director of strategic partnerships in the College of Education.
The number of emergency certified teachers in Pennsylvania has risen from 962 in 2015-16 to 2,178 in 2018-19, an increase of more than 126% in three years. The number of long-term substitutes in that same period increased by 113% to 2,152 from 1,009.
Many of those teachers have degrees in fields other than teaching and have been granted emergency temporary certification by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. For them to become long-term teachers, these substitutes must get their Pennsylvania teacher certification.
“We get requests for nontraditional routes to certification; some of these individuals are looking to shift careers, while others are finishing their undergraduate degree in another major but have had recent experiences that have ignited a passion for teaching,” said Greg Mason, director of the Advising and Certification Center in the College of Education. “While we have had some students complete certification requirements post-bachelors, the demand for alternative pathways has grown in my 10 years in the college.”
The TRP proposes to address that need with a unique, condensed curriculum that enables teachers on emergency license to earn their certification in just 15 months, while they are teaching. The shorter time to certification also makes the program more affordable.
Lawless is excited about the program, which she said will complement the portfolio already offered in the College of Education.
“Most of our teacher preparation and certification programs are geared toward the traditional undergraduate student population. This program is designed for a different demographic — people who are already in the classroom, already have degrees in another field and are working to become certified teachers,” Lawless said.
The program initially will focus on those teachers in the Reading School District with emergency certifications; long-term substitutes; and paraprofessionals interested in becoming teachers in the district.
Because teachers in these categories tend to live in the communities where they teach, they also tend to reflect their community’s rich demographic diversity.
“The goal of this program is to help increase teacher diversity and prepare teachers with an equity- and asset-based framework,” Lopez said. “This outcome would benefit the teachers, their students and the community as a whole.”
Lopez said research shows that students of color benefit from having teachers who look like them. “But one of the things that is not mentioned is every student in the classroom, including white students, benefits from a diverse teacher workforce,” he said.
The TRP is about more than just accelerated certification, however.
“The Reading community is really invested in its children, and this is really what it comes down to. It’s about what’s in the best interests of their children.”
—Javier Lopez , Director of strategic partnerships in the College of Education
“The Reading community is really invested in its children, and this is really what it comes down to. It’s about what’s in the best interests of their children,” Lopez said. “One quarter of the students in the Reading School District are English-Language Learners, meaning English is not their first language. These schools need certified teachers who use an asset-based approach to teaching.”
Lopez explained that an asset-based approach means that rather than viewing students as lacking a strong grasp of the English language, educators understand the assets of bilingualism students possess.
“Every student brings in strengths,” he said. “And if we can prepare teachers to think about these students through an asset-based framework, students will have unlimited possibilities. And that’s what parents and teachers and community leaders want from their teachers — to look at their children with all their potential in mind.”
Programs like the TRP may take multiple years to develop and implement, but Lopez said the three ingredients needed for success all came together quickly and he projects a summer 2022 launch.
“First, our college leadership supports it, and that’s important. Second, we have faculty members who believe in it and are using their expertise to design a high-quality program,” Lopez said.
Another ingredient a program like this needs to be successful is financial resources.
“If we hadn’t had someone like John Gilmartin who believes in the program to help support it, we wouldn’t be here right now, about to launch the pilot,” said Lopez.
Gilmartin, a longtime and generous supporter of equity programs in the College of Education, said he was happy to support the TRP because the design of the program made good sense to him in terms of the University’s Land Grant mission.
“We philanthropically can give money to help bring students of need to Penn State for expertise that’s there,” said Gilmartin. “This program goes the other direction and takes Penn State expertise and resources to the local community and applies them there. I think philanthropic dollars are very important to be used for that purpose, as it can make a real difference to people who would never be able to find their way to State College, no matter what kind of program you designed.”
Gilmartin also sees value in collaborating with educational leaders in the Reading community. Their input in the process of selecting TRP participants will ensure local ownership and quality, he said, as well as allow program designers to measure results against teachers — substitute and otherwise — who have yet to participate.
“This is only a test,” Gilmartin said. “But it’s an important one. I look forward to seeing what it proves.”
In addition to partnering with Reading School District, the TRP will partner with Penn State Berks in Reading. When the pilot is launched in Reading, the program’s courses will be offered in a hybrid model where teachers in the program take some courses at the Berks campus and some courses online through World Campus. Eventually, Lopez wants to expand the program throughout Pennsylvania.
“We intend to prove that something like this can be done well through Penn State, because we have our commonwealth campuses throughout the state. Seventy-five percent of Pennsylvania residents live within 15 miles of a Penn State campus, which means when we’re ready to expand it, this program will work in virtually every community in Pennsylvania.”
Lopez stressed the importance of programs such as the TRP, because of the changing demographics in the United States. Data from the 2020 Census show a more diverse population than at any time in the nation’s history. The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the country has increased since 2010, and the percentage of the U.S. population identifying as white alone (not Hispanic) is 57.8%, down from 63.7% in the 2010 Census.
“We’re thinking about that demographic shift and working to make sure all students are getting the education they need,” Lopez said. “This is critical to our country, to our democracy and to the future of the children who are going to be leading this country in the coming decades. We need to embrace the change and re-imagine the way we prepare teachers. I’m optimistic that we’re going to do it, and we’re going to start right here at Penn State.”