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Promise Seen in Patchwork of Para-to-Teacher Programs

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Sarah Montoya spent nine years as an aide who helped other teachers, dreaming of the day when she would have a classroom of her own.

But, like many school paraprofessionals, the 30-year-old native of Spain couldn't afford college. "I had always wanted to go to school, but due to my financial situation, I was not able to," she said.

At least, not until she hooked up with the Urban Paraprofessional Teacher Preparation Program at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass.. The program has given her and dozens of other paraprofessionals the chance to make the step up to teaching.

Such programs do more than simply provide opportunities for school aides to become teachers, their supporters say. They help funnel members of minority groups and foreign-language speakers into a profession that badly needs diversity.

"We are talking about a better-prepared teaching force for the realities of many of our nation's most challenging schools," said David Haselkorn, the president of the Belmont, Mass.-based Recruiting New Teachers, Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes teaching as a career. "All teachers need to be prepared for all learners."

The Cambridge College program is one of many that have sprung up around the country in recent years designed to help paraprofessionals become teachers.

Such programs "hold significant promise for creating a more qualified, diverse, and culturally responsive teaching force," a report due out this week from Mr. Haselkorn's group concludes.

Patchwork of Programs

Many experts say the need to diversify the nation's teaching force has become even more vital as the gap between the percentage of minority students and minority teachers widens. The new report indicates that 13 percent of all U.S. teachers are members of minority groups, while nearly one-third of their students fall into that category.

The nation's 500,000 school paraprofessionals are a promising source of new teachers who are "more representative of and more rooted in the communities in which they serve," the nearly 300-page report says. Paraprofessionals who want to become teachers are usually older, have extensive classroom experience, and are less likely to leave teaching after only a few years than many traditional teacher education students, according to the report.

They bring not only diversity but a broad range of experience as well to teacher training programs and to the profession as a whole, said David G. Imig, the executive director of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

"This group is far more ready to reflect on what happens in classrooms," he said. "It's a different conversation that they're able to raise in the education school."

The Recruiting New Teachers study found 149 programs nationwide, operating primarily at colleges and universities, that enroll more than 9,000 paraprofessionals. More than three-fourths of those enrolled in the teacher training programs are members of minority groups.

Those programs receive their financial support from foundations, the federal government, universities, school districts, and other local groups, the study found. Yet the future prospects for some of those funding sources, especially at the federal level, are uncertain.

"We know that these programs are poorly funded, we know that there is a large population out there that would like to become teachers, and we would like to see other funders consider investing in this population," said Mildred Hudson, the program officer for the Pathways to Teaching Careers Program at the New York City-based DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. That foundation, a major backer of paraprofessional programs, sponsored the Recruiting New Teachers study.

Ties to Classroom

At many of the programs around the country, diversity is a vital part of the equation.

In Los Angeles, which suffers from a chronic shortage of Spanish-speaking teachers, the Ford Foundation has provided funds for the Latino Teacher Project. Candidates selected for the program receive stipends, faculty mentors, and peer support while completing their educations.

Michael Genzuk, the principal investigator for the program, said it was designed to help paraprofessionals navigate "a maze of barriers"--financial, academic, and cultural.

Other program administrators say that helping paraprofessionals match theory with their classroom experience is yet another key factor in a program's success.

"Sometimes paraeducators are in positions where they don't really get to do what they need to do to learn. They do scut work," said Mary Diez, the chair of the education division at Alverno College in Milwaukee. She helps administer the Milwaukee Pathways to Teaching Careers Program, which receives financial support from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

Paraprofessionals need to reflect on their work so they can "move from doing to knowing," Ms. Diez said.

Ms. Montoya, who works at the Rafael Hernandez School, a bilingual elementary school in the Roxbury section of Boston, entered the Cambridge College paraprofessional program in September 1993. She has since earned a bachelor's degree and expects to complete her master's degree in January.

She agreed that by being a paraprofessional for so long, she had mastered "the classroom routine" without understanding the theory behind it. "Therefore, going to school just sort of brings it all together."

For More Information:

Pricing information for single or multiple copies of "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Paraeducator Pathways to Teaching," is available by calling (617) 489-6000. To order, send requests to: Recruiting New Teachers Inc., 385 Concord Ave., Belmont, Mass. 02178.

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