District leaders report that one of the biggest challenges they face is a shortage of teachers, and in particular, a shortage of special education teachers. New data shows that this shortage is widespread and increasing. There is also a need for greater diversity within the profession.
Clear evidence confirms that having teachers reflect the demographics of their communities–when students of color have teachers that look like them–helps improve student learning. Growing your own (GYO) special education teacher pipeline provides a promising answer to the challenges of recruiting and retaining a diverse teacher workforce.
A GYO pipeline strategy is a program designed to address teacher shortages in schools by recruiting and training individuals from within the local community to become teachers. The program typically targets high school students, paraprofessionals, and other community members who may be interested in a career in teaching.
The program is called “Grow Your Own” because it emphasizes building up local talent and resources, rather than relying on external recruitment. The pipeline aspect of the program refers to the idea that participants are brought into the program early on and are provided with ongoing support and training as they progress towards becoming fully certified teachers. The program typically includes a combination of coursework, mentorship, and hands-on teaching experience. Participants may be provided with scholarships or stipends to help cover the cost of tuition and other expenses.
GYO: Different Shapes and Sizes
GYO programs are being rolled out across the country with two primary goals: growing and diversifying the teacher workforce. GYO programs come in many shapes and sizes, but they all focus on recruiting teachers from the community for the community. Using partnerships between school districts, colleges, and community organizations, education leaders are finding ways to encourage community members to enter the field.
The majority of GYO programs are rolled out at the district level, but more states are stepping in to provide funding and support. There is also emerging research about which GYO strategies seem to be the most effective.
New America conducted a 50-state scan to understand how communities are developing GYO programs. Many GYO programs are started at the local level with little state involvement, though that is shifting now in terms of funding and support. At least seven states fund statewide GYO programs and provide assistance to local school districts for GYO programs. State assistance is important, but many participants also feel that the strength of GYO programs is in their ability to understand and focus on local needs.
The New America project found that the most common and effective types of programs focus on recruiting high school students. A program in Minnesota, for example, helps high school students earn dual credit for education courses taken while in high school. Apprenticeship programs are also springing up that include high school and college courses combined with paid work-based learning. Tennessee is now serving as a model for other states. The state sponsors a permanent teacher occupation apprenticeship program that provides a work-based learning pathway to give students hands-on experience while earning money. Students are provided with job placement upon completion.
The second most common GYO program focuses on paraeducators. Some states offer scholarship programs to help paraeducators earn special education teaching degrees. Support for paraeducators is often locally based, with administrators tapping specific individuals to enroll in GYO programs. Programs can include scholarships, financial assistance, test preparation, academic advising, and on-the-job learning. The STEP UP and Teach Program offered by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, provides paraeducators with mentorship and partial tuition reimbursement. The program focuses on recruiting where the need is the strongest: potential special education, multilingual and multicultural, and STEM teachers.
Strong GYO Programs Need to Include Strategic Retention Strategies
For special educators, adding a strong retention component to GYO programs will be crucial. Attracting new teachers to the field is only half the battle, keeping them from leaving the field requires intentional evidence-based practices included in the GYO planning process.
Retention strategies need to focus on the main reasons special educators leave the field. The majority (84% percent) of special education teachers enter the field planning to stay. What happens? New teachers often have overly optimistic views about how they can make a difference in the lives of their students, but these new teachers sometimes lack the knowledge and skills needed to work effectively with students with disabilities within a school system.
One bright note found in recent research is that, not surprisingly, homegrown teachers have higher rates of retention. In addition, a new national study shows that special educators of color have higher retention rates, especially in urban schools. This is encouraging news that suggests that GYO programs are having some success in growing and diversifying the workforce and supporting teachers so that they remain in the profession.
By focusing on local resources–our high school students and paraprofessionals–and including strategic retention strategies, we are seeing encouraging signs that we are having an impact on reducing teacher shortages.
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