Advocates Beat Drum for Para-to-Teacher Programs

By Joanna Richardson — June 21, 1995 3 min read

Pasadena, Calif.

Educators, policymakers, and university and foundation officials gathered here in search of ways to help paraprofessionals make the leap to teaching.

Many consider the goal a vital one at a time when the gap between the number of minority students and minority teachers widens. Many classroom aides and noncertified employees are members of minority groups, and policymakers have long sought to help them step into full-time teaching. (See Education Week, 5/17/95.)

But paraprofessionals who want to teach often face formidable obstacles. Many work long hours, have children at home, and do not have the money for education courses and books.

In addition, many programs that provide a route to teaching are overbooked or underfunded, said David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., an organization that promotes precollegiate and other programs that stir interest in the profession.

Participants at the June 9-11 meeting organized by the Belmont, Mass.-based group explored new ways to spread the word--and drum up money--for the patchwork of programs designed to help paraprofessionals.

The discussions are expected to provide grist for the nonprofit organization’s “Breaking the Class Ceiling,” a national report on the status of aide-to-teacher programs scheduled to be released in the fall.

The DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund--which is underwriting the upcoming report--was also the major source of funding for the conference. The federal government already supports many paraprofessional-to-teacher programs. And philanthropies such as DeWitt Wallace and the Ford Foundation have poured millions of dollars into those efforts.

Many participants here testified that the movement is spreading in states and local schools, with help from universities, districts, unions, and others.

Addressing Problems

Nationally, about 150 aide-to-teacher programs are now preparing some 11,000 new teachers, according to Recruiting New Teachers. More than two-thirds are minorities.

Already, about 10,000 former aides hold teaching jobs.

In addition to targeting members of minority groups, many aide-to-teacher programs address another pressing problem: critical shortages of teachers in fields such as bilingual and special education.

By the time classroom aides become teachers, most already have a grounding in sound education practices, participants here said.

More than half the people in the training programs are in their 30’s and 40’s, bringing years of experience to their new profession, said Mildred Hudson, the program officer for Pathways to Teaching Careers.

Unlike most new teachers, “paraprofessionals don’t need three years of acculturation,” said Mahesh C. Sharma, the dean of education programs at Cambridge College in Massachusetts.

Teachers who start as classroom aides are less likely to bail out of the profession after only a few years, he added.

Barbara Gordon-Cobb, a former paraprofessional who now teaches in Hartford, Conn., chalked that persistence up to aides’ strong ties to their neighborhood schools, since many choose to work in them. And, she said, former aides are often more comfortable with a diverse student body, since many are members of minority groups themselves.

Lack of Money, Space

Michael Genzuk, the director of the University of Southern California’s Latino Teacher Project, said aide-to-teacher efforts give school officials a chance to see how prospective teachers perform, since they are already working in the system.

In its study, Recruiting New Teachers found that about half the programs had to turn away qualified people for lack of money. And about a quarter had to pass over candidates for lack of space.

“It’s not that people aren’t out there” who want to climb the ladder into teaching, Mr. Haselkorn said. “It’s about the will to train those people.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1995 edition of Education Week as Advocates Beat Drum for Para-to-Teacher Programs