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Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as Degrees of Preparation

Degrees of Preparation

Becoming a teacher once meant four years of university. But community colleges are fast becoming a real alternative.

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It’s second period on a mild, breezy June Friday in Los Angeles—a perfect day for getting distracted from social studies. But the 7th graders in Jacqueline Cardona’s Bell-Cudahy K-8 School classroom are intently comparing projected slides of classical, medieval, and Renaissance art. As the images beam up before them, her 25 students lean forward over their desks, shoes nuzzling the punctured tennis balls that cup the bottom of each chair leg.

Attired in a magenta blouse, jeans, and a bandanna, the 29-year-old seems coolly in control as she peppers them with Socratic-style questions about the subtle differences in religious content and facial expression among the sculptures and paintings. Most of the cascading responses are correct, but she’s looking for more.

Jacqueline Cardona always wanted to be an educator. But the mother of two says that if her community college hadn't offered a teacher prep program, she wouldn't have been able to afford to earn a bachelor's degree.
Jacqueline Cardona always wanted to be an educator. But the mother of two says that if her community college hadn't offered a teacher prep program, she wouldn't have been able to afford to earn a bachelor's degree.
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

Chicos, I want you to come up with at least one reason for your answers,” she tells the kids, most of whom, like her, are Latino. When they correctly place Fra Filippo Lippi’s painting The Madonna and Child With Two Angels in the Renaissance period, they hoot and holler “Yeah!” in celebration. “Two angels hold the baby up to her,” Cardona says, gesturing at the picture. “One seems proud to be doing what she’s doing and looks at the viewer with a smile.”

Privately, the first-year teacher smiles, too. She can tell she’s making some headway despite the difficulty of the subject— particularly for these working-class children, most of whom have had as little exposure to art history as she did growing up. Indeed, her mere presence at the front of the classroom might have once seemed a miracle on the order of the scenes her students are studying: What are the chances that this child of Mexican immigrants, whose laborer father never made it past 3rd grade and who’s now a mother of two, could afford enough college to end up as a teacher?

Much improved.

Amid the yawning teacher shortages that persist in California and other high-growth parts of the country, community colleges such as the one Cardona attended are rushing to fill the gap. According to a 2004 survey by the National Association of Community College Teacher Education Programs, 91 percent of its member schools showed increased enrollment over the previous two years—some have seen matriculants jump by 35 percent. The organization itself was created just three years ago, but it has already grown to more than 400 members. Through education prep curricula, certification offerings, and even four-year degrees, two-year colleges are increasingly becoming a viable—and in some ways preferable—entry point into the teaching profession.

For would-be educators like Cardona, for whom the traditional ed school track was economically out of the question, community college brought teaching within reach. “The community college system is a much cheaper way for them to get started,” says former Bell-Cudahy principal Kathy Swank. What’s more, added the recently retired administrator, who hired Cardona and headed the school for two decades, there’s a direct benefit to districts—particularly those that are hard to staff—that hire new teachers who come up through two-year colleges.

“For somebody to have fought the battle and has made it ... is very critical because they can share that with the children,” Swank says. “That’s far more important than just having a degree.”

Bell, the town in which Cardona grew up and now teaches, is an overwhelmingly Hispanic settlement of 38,000 located more or less in the center of the sprawling megalopolis that is Los Angeles. It seems hardscrabble to a first-time observer, with modest, adobe-style homes on side streets and mostly mom-and-pop retailers, some of whom lower metal grates over their front windows at closing time, on the main drags. Standing in front of the house she lived in from ages 5 to 7, the longest she remembers residing anywhere, Cardona estimates that her family lived in 20 different Bell abodes by the time she was 17. She describes the surrounding area as “gang-infested,” though less so now than when she was a child. It’s still not a wealthy town, however: 24 percent of residents live below the poverty line—twice the national average.

Cardona credits her parents for instilling the value of getting an education, and she tries to relay that to her students. “My dad used to tell me that he busted his back to make sure we had the opportunities that he didn’t as a child,” she says. “My mom told me this, and I tell it to my students: Don’t be ashamed of where you come from, but always look at where you want to be.”

The classroom was where she’d always wanted to be, but as she slogged through four years as an insurance company administrative assistant after high school, she didn’t see how she could get there. She couldn’t afford four years of education school.

“My principal asked me when I interviewed why I wanted to teach here,” Cardona remembers. She told her: “I know what it’s like to grow up in this area. I knew I could make that connection with my students.”
“My principal asked me when I interviewed why I wanted to teach here,” Cardona remembers. She told her: “I know what it’s like to grow up in this area. I knew I could make that connection with my students.”
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

To put it mildly, “It wasn’t easy for me to get from point A to point B,” she recalls. Then she heard about a startup program known as Teacher TRAC at Cerritos College, the nearby two-year school she’d been attending sporadically. Its students take the same kinds of classes in child development, introductory pedagogy, and other specialized topics that they would complete at a four-year college, but at a fraction of the cost: In-state Cerritos students currently pay just $1,616 in tuition and fees over two years—less than a third of what an average year of tuition costs at a public university.

After two years, students who meet grade and curricular requirements automatically transfer to California State University Long Beach’s Integrated Teacher Education Program to complete their bachelor’s degrees and take the state certification exam. This cooperative, so-called two-plus-two model is only one of several types of programs community colleges have rigged up to address the teacher gap that continues to plague growing and hard-to-staff schools, particularly in the Sun Belt. Some allow nearby universities to set up upper-division teacher ed enclaves on their campuses. Others offer postbaccalaureate subject-area certification classes to teacher wannabes who’ve already earned four-year degrees. A few in particularly teacher-starved areas such as Miami and Nevada have even gotten special permission from their legislatures to offer a full-fledged bachelor’s in education.

If that seems radical, it’s only because the need is, too. A May report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that in 2003, the number of K-12 students had reached 53.3 million, topping the previous record of 48.7 million set in 1970. Coupled with that sobering fact is the rising attrition rate of teachers: According to a national survey of educators released in August by the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Education Information, 40 percent of public school teachers plan to leave the profession within five years. For high school teachers, that figure jumps to half.

In areas with high population growth, the problem is even more profound. According to a 2004 report by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, California will need to replace 60,000 teachers in the next five years and more than 100,000 teachers in the next decade because of teacher retirements, peaking in 2012-13 with a 52,000-teacher gap.

Despite their relatively late entry into the teacher preparation field, two-year colleges have already begun to feed large quantities of graduates into the nation’s classrooms. A 2002 study by Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Massachusetts-based nonprofit, found that 20 percent of teachers nationwide started their education at community colleges.

“Community colleges continue to be helpful in terms of the pipeline issue,” says Mildred Hudson, the organization’s chief executive officer. “This is really important because 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first three to five years.”

Teacher TRAC has already made a small dent in the Los Angeles area’s teacher shortage. Of the 182 students it has transferred to its partner university since the program began in 1999—the year Cardona enrolled—director Sue Parsons reports that 64 have graduated and that she knows of 31 who are now teaching. She admits, however, that it’s still too soon to say how many of the teachers who got their start at community colleges will stick with the profession.

“The true test will be that you’re still teaching in four, five, six, seven years—[whether] you still have that passion, not wanting to leave the teaching profession,” she says.

But principals such as Swank seem willing to take a chance on hiring teachers-to-be who’ve done only half the usual time at traditional baccalaureate-level colleges. “They’re going to get the same academic coursework they would get in a four-year university,” she notes. Such teachers also bring credibility, role-modeling, and other benefits to their students and communities that traditional ed school grads don’t.

“It’s making that connection with the parents in the community, which is so important,” Swank says. “Many of them ... have high aspirations for their children, but they don’t know where to go with it. [Cardona] can help, and teachers like her can help to guide the parents: ‘This is the path I took.’ ”

"I loved this school,” Cardona says wistfully, walking across Cerritos College’s vast parking lot toward the education building. Those warm feelings extend to Parsons, whom Cardona greets with an extended embrace in the doorway as she enters the Teacher TRAC office. It’s the first time she’s visited in a while, though the two have kept in regular touch and have spoken recently about a letter of recommendation Parsons is writing for the younger woman to support her application to local master’s programs.

Along with lower costs, the college’s supportive, familylike group of instructors helped Cardona stick with her studies, as did the flexibility of the classes, which made it possible, if not easy, for the mother of two to juggle her maternal and academic responsibilities. Then there are the other, even less tangible factors.

Cardona, pictured with her husband and children, grew up in a number of gang-infested, impoverished neighborhoods.
Cardona, pictured with her husband and children, grew up in a number of gang-infested, impoverished neighborhoods. "I can relate to [ny students]," she says, "because I was there 15 years ago."
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

“My principal asked me when I interviewed why I wanted to teach here,” Cardona remembers. She told her: “I know what it’s like to grow up in this area. I knew I could make that connection with my students.” Cardona adds: “A lot of them come from broken families; a lot of them come from a lower socioeconomic group. I can relate to them because I was there 15 years ago.”

That message seems to have sunk in with Israel Gonzalez, a rising 8th grader in Cardona’s class. “She talks about how, if you go to college, you can make more money and have more opportunities in life,” he says.

“In my class, there are no nerds,” Cardona reports proudly. “They’re very competitive, and doing well in school is seen as a positive thing. In a lot of schools, kids are not engaged because they don’t see what they can get from an education.”

Later that sunny Friday, as her fourth-period class draws to a close, Cardona addresses her language arts students. “Isn’t it just the smallest things we take for granted? It’s not the big house. It’s not the nice clothes,” she says. She’s talking about “The Treasure of Lemon Brown,” the short story the class has been reading, but she’s also making an oblique point—one she learned, and not without cost, on her long and winding road from educatee to educator.

“Some of you take for granted that you live with two parents, or one parent. How did you get to school today? Walk? Some people can’t do that. That you’re here right now—isn’t that a treasure? The fact that you’re learning—isn’t that a treasure? I’m going to leave you with that thought.”

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 20-24

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