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Point Park will offer on-the-job degree programs to address Pa. teacher shortage

Desks in an elementary school classroom.
Matt Slocum
Desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa.

With a record number of teachers leaving Pennsylvania classrooms, Point Park University is developing an on-the-job teacher certification program to help fill the gaps.

The university is collaborating with Pittsburgh-based tech company BloomBoard to roll out several bachelor’s degree programs that will allow school support staff to earn their certificate to teach while they work.

The first of them — a certification and bachelor’s degree in special education — will launch in March 2024, and a similar program for elementary education is in the works. Both areas are among those facing critical teacher shortages.

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More than 9,500 Pennsylvania teachers left their positions during the 2022-23 school year, and supply hasn’t caught up: the state’s Department of Education issued only 5,101 new certifications in 2022.

To address this need, Point Park and BloomBoard are encouraging school districts to look inward and identify employees who are already committed to their schools and the needs of their students, but may not be able to obtain an advanced degree without additional support and flexibility.

Point Park senior vice president of academic affairs Michael Soto said the degree program will enroll substitute teachers and paraprofessionals, who assist state-certified teachers with a number of tasks.

Many paraprofessionals have years of experience in behavioral support and small-group supervision, but due to low pay and little support, opportunities for career advancement are often limited.

“The goal is to allow paraprofessionals to complete their undergraduate degree and obtain a teacher certification so that they can then be the primary teacher in a classroom,” Soto said.

“Grow Your Own” teacher programs are gaining momentum across Pennsylvania

The partnership between Point Park and BloomBoard adds to a nationwide effort to bolster the supply of teachers. At least 21 states have “Grow Your Own” apprenticeship programs that help aspiring teachers — whether they be college students or paraprofessionals — earn their degrees while on the job.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg looking to do the same introduced legislation earlier this year, though it remains stuck in committee. In the meantime, school districts in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have launched their own “grow your own” programs.

In 2020, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) launched a Para2Teacher program that allowed paraprofessionals to enroll in a two-year master’s program while remaining employed by the district. (That program, however, was paused after its first cohort graduated, due to a lack of funds.)

BloomBoard president Jason Lange said he’s currently working to sign up districts and regional education service agencies, or Intermediate Units — both in Pennsylvania and across the country — for its initial special education certification through Point Park.

The company, which bills itself as a talent development provider for K-12 districts, expects at least 100 new educators to participate in its first cohort.

“You can get a bachelor's degree if you go work at Target or Amazon,” Lange pointed out. “And so now the idea is that districts can fight back and actually have a way to empower folks to both engage in a pathway to be certified, but also create some opportunities for them to advance in their careers.”

These programs could help districts retain diverse staff

District employers and Intermediate Units will provide financial and logistical support to those enrolled, although how districts pay for some or all of their employees’ degrees is up to each one to decide.

Lange said districts BloomBoard has partnered with in other states have helped their staff leverage federal student aid, like Pell Grants, or dipped into federal COVID relief allocated to schools — though that funding will expire next year.

In exchange for financial support and a guaranteed teaching position, new teachers are often required to commit to staying at the district for a determined number of years.

It’s one way districts can retain educators already familiar with the needs of their schools and students, both in and out of the classroom. Paraprofessionals are typically more diverse than their teacher counterparts and are often members of the same communities they serve.

“A great number of our students within Pittsburgh Public Schools are our kids of color, and our paraprofessionals are a much better representation of that than the teachers we now have working [in the district],” said Brenda Marks, a behavior technician and paraprofessional at Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8.

Marks, who also chairs the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers’ paraprofessional steering committee, said paraprofessionals are ideal candidates for teacher certification programs because they know what the job entails “and still want to do it.”

Marks said certification programs like Point Park’s could also ease some of the unique costs paraprofessionals at PPS: While paraprofessionals are paid far less than teachers in the district, they are required to live within city limits, where Black and low-income earners are often squeezed out due to limited affordable housing options.

Pittsburgh Public’s residency requirement applies to employees without a professional certificate. As of February 2021, about 2,500 staff members lived under the mandate.

Union leaders have long urged the district to lift the requirement for paraprofessionals, especially as the district struggles to fill those positions.

Marks said that teacher certification programs aimed at paraprofessionals in the district would ease that cost burden, making it easier for them to afford housing in the district, or freeing them up to move elsewhere.

“If those paras receive those certifications, they already know our children. They already know our district and our city,” Marks said. “They are passionate about helping children. So it would be a win-win all the way around.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.