Ivy Tech opening doors for teaching

Written on 03/22/2024
Patrick Munsey

Fourteen people from north central Indiana are on their way to better careers, better lives for their families, and opportunities to fill vital roles in Hoosier hometowns as members of the first cohort of a new Paraprofessional Apprenticeship offered by Ivy Tech Community College’s Kokomo Service Area. The goal is that these 14 “teachers-to-be” are just the beginning of an effort that could help address the critical teacher shortages impacting communities across the country.

In partnership with area school corporations and the State of Indiana, Ivy Tech Kokomo has developed the Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, to give elementary school instructional paraprofessionals a four-year path to becoming licensed kindergarten to sixth-grade teachers. According to Kokomo School Superintendent Dr. Michael Sargent, it’s a program that allows school corporations to nurture current employees and, potentially, recent high school graduates to move into teaching positions in their “home” schools.

Several years ago, Sargent and Dr. Ethan Heicher, chancellor of Ivy Tech Kokomo, were batting around ideas to address Indiana’s lack of early childhood education programs, lack of engagement with education in general, and continuing shortage of teachers. The statistics are daunting. More than 6,200 emergency teaching licenses were granted in Indiana last year. At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, 1,170 teaching positions remained unfilled. The school corporation’s instructional paraprofessionals, already hard at work in local classrooms supporting teachers and individual students, were seen as vital existing resources.

Work began on developing a program that would offer a path for those paraprofessionals to move from their current jobs as teacher’s aides into careers as teachers. Indiana’s Department of Education and the Office of Work-Based Learning joined in, helping in the federal apprenticeship registration process and providing $30,000 to get the program off the ground.

“This had to be a program designed to fit into their lives instead of expecting them to fit their lives around it, a program that allows them to continue to work and meet the needs of their families while pursuing college credentials at the same time,” Heicher said.

Money was found to cover a portion of the students’ tuition and fees, breaking down another barrier for the paraprofessionals, and school corporations agreed to pay raises to recognize each new credential earned. Western Governors University (WGU) signed on as a partner; after completing their associate degrees at Ivy Tech, students will transfer their credits to a two-year online program at WGU to complete their bachelor degrees. The result – Ivy Tech’s Paraprofessional Apprenticeship – kicked off last fall.

In the program’s first cohort, 14 students from four area school corporations – Kokomo, Maconaquah, Rochester and Western – are taking two courses in each of the four eight-week sessions offered in the fall and spring semesters. Classes meet for an hour after the school day Monday through Friday, scheduled to allow students to get to their Ivy Tech classroom or connect by Zoom and be home in time for dinner.

The students complete additional coursework during summer breaks. As Dr. Teni Helmberger, who directs special program for the Kokomo School Corporation, said, the cohort approach, where the students move through the program as a group, offers them the support of colleagues, “study buddies,” who are sharing the experience, and each participant has a teacher mentor in their school.

Teacher retention is another factor in embracing this program, said Tara Kaser, program chair and assistant professor of Education at Ivy Tech Kokomo.

“Many paraprofessionals in the first cohort have already been in the classroom for maybe 10 to 15 years, doing the hard work with students every day,” Kaser said. “The school corporations know them, their experience and their potential, and know most are there to stay.”

The formal apprenticeship will also be important. U.S. Department of Labor statistics say people who have gone through a registered apprenticeship have a 91 percent retention rate with their employer. According to the Indiana Department of Education, the retention rate for teachers between the 2021 and 2022 school years was just 77 percent. Six months into the program, schools are already seeing benefits.

“As these students complete each of these certifications – the technical certificate in Education, the Indiana College Core credential and the associate degree, not only is their pay increasing; they are gaining skills that they are bringing right back into the classroom,” Sargent said. “It’s benefiting our paraprofessionals the entire time they are in the program. What they are learning at the college level, they are now implementing with the kindergarten to sixth-grade students they serve.”

For paraprofessional apprentice Maureen Beckwith, a teacher’s aide at Western Schools, the program is both challenging and accommodating to students who are parents and full-time school employees.

“Being able to attend classes via Zoom has allowed me to skip the commute to campus and to use that time to work on my classwork,” Beckwith said. “Some days, I attend classes from my van while I sit at the tennis courts or the band practice field, watching and supporting my children.

“Knowing that I will finally complete my degree, 30 years after I began, both makes me proud of myself and shows my children and our students that it is never too late to achieve your goals.”

While this first cohort kicks off a program for existing paraprofessionals who never started or didn’t finish a bachelor degree, Sargent said, the long-term goal is also to develop cohorts for recent high school graduates who want to move right into the apprenticeship program.

“Our counselors are talking to our seniors about this possibility right now,” Helmberger said. “If they have an interest in teaching or want to explore it as an option, they can work full time in the schools they know and earn wages while at the same time earning a bachelor’s degree at little cost, and securing their teaching license, by the age of 22. They will work side-by-side with our teachers, the best experience they can get. Nothing is better than that on-the-job training.”

Heicher said additional school corporations in the Kokomo Service Area have expressed interest in participating. The program has become a model that other Ivy Tech campuses are looking to replicate as the state works to fill hundreds of teaching positions throughout Indiana.

Ivy Tech’s partners at the state level are excited to see the program grow. Dr. Rebecca Estes is assistant secretary for Educator Talent at the Indiana Department of Education.

“As we continue to prioritize the recruitment of Indiana’s best and brightest to the educator profession, teacher apprenticeships provide an opportunity to support individuals who have an interest in earning while learning,” she said. “The efforts of Ivy Tech and their partners are creating an entry point for future educators that is sustainable and can be replicated across the state.”

Jason Graves, senior director in the Indiana Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship, echoed her comments.

“This is great model for the state,” Graves said. “To meet the current staffing needs of schools, and of the economy as a whole, we need to start thinking outside the box on credential and degree attainment while maintaining rigor and quality. We believe the registered apprenticeship is the tried-and-true system to deliver that. Ivy Tech Kokomo is a very innovative campus and we are very proud to work with them.”

Current paraprofessionals or graduating high school seniors are encouraged to talk to their schools about this opportunity and school corporations interested in participating in new cohorts are encouraged to contact Ivy Tech Kokomo. More information is available from Tara Kaser (tkaser4@ivytech.edu, 765-252-5519) and Dr. Nicholas Capozzoli, executive director of Operations and Apprenticeships at Ivy Tech Kokomo (ncapozzoli@ivytech.edu, 765-252-5528).