'This is my chance': Rollins College's 'Pathways to Teaching' program helps aides become teachers

Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel

Marybelle Doe loves her job as a teaching assistant at an Orange County high school, but it’s work that makes her wish for more.

“I always wanted to to take it one step further and have my own classroom,” she said.

But earning the degree required to teach seemed impossible. Doe, a mother of two, already juggled a second job at Target to help make ends meet, so she couldn’t see how to find the time or money for college classes.

Then she learned about a new partnership between her employer, the Orange County school district, and Rollins College designed to help classroom assistants — who already have two-year degrees —complete their four-year degrees and become state-certified teachers.

“I was so excited, like overwhelmingly excited,” said Doe, 46. “Oh, my God, this is my chance to do this!”

The new “Pathways to Teaching” program launched in August and Doe and the 13 other members of the inaugural class wrapped up their first semester at Rollins in December. The group is slated to graduate in 2021.

For the school district, always on the hunt for new teachers, the program is a way to recruit internally, tapping as would-be teachers employees who already like working with kids and in public schools.

With twice-a-week evening classes and financial help from both the college and the school district, the pathways program aims to be affordable and manageable for the employees, officially called paraprofessionals. They take one Rollins class at a time to make the classwork doable while they continue to work full-time at their public school jobs.

Graduation will mean a guaranteed teaching job in an Orange public school and a significant boost in salary.

The paraprofessionals start out making $10.20 an hour, and the average paraprofessional in Orange earned $18,641 last school year, according to the Florida Department of Education. By comparison, a new teacher in an Orange public school earned $40,000 that year and will earn $40,700 in the coming one.

“This is life-changing for these people, absolutely, and they know it,” said Debra Wellman, a professor of education at Rollins who helped organize the program and taught one of the group’s classes.

Wellman and Neil Otto, an administrator who does teacher recruitment for the district, said the spark for the program came during a recruitment meeting between district and college staff.

Someone mentioned paraprofessionals as potential teachers, noting their work with small groups of students, typically those who have learning disabilities or are still learning English, gives them sought-after classroom skills.

The college’s Hamilton Holt School already offered evening classes for working adults, including an elementary education degree, and seemed the perfect host, Wellman said.

“This is our quality program, and we’re not watering it down,” she said.

The college knocked $1,000 off the tuition, usually about $6,000 for part-time students in the Holt undergraduate programs, and helped the new students secure grants and student loans to cover the rest.

The district recruited candidates from its schools that serve large numbers of students from low-income families, as those campuses typically have the most teacher vacancies, Otto said. It was then able to use some of its federal anti-poverty money to pay for textbooks and laptops for the new Rollins students and will use those funds next year to pay them for required internships that are usually unpaid.

The goal: “Breaking down all these barriers,” both financial and logistical, so that the needed degree is attainable, Otto said.

A second pathways group is to start classes in August.

Given the nationwide decline in traditional college students pursuing education degrees, school systems and education colleges are looking at other groups to fill their ranks.

“Why not take the people who are motivated and who like their jobs and enable them to do even a better job?” said James McLaughlin, a Rollins education professor who taught the group’s first class. “The faculty of Rollins are really committed to this. We think this is a really great thing for the future.”

When the semester started, some of the students in his class on “school and society” seemed unsure of themselves, wondering if Rollins was really for them and questioning, "Am I really going to succeed here?” he said.

“They did," McLaughlin said. “Every single one of them did."

Most of the students are minorities, most have families and all have life experiences, including financial struggles, that will help them relate to the public school students they’ll teach in a few years, McLaughlin said.

“This is one of the best classes I’ve ever taught,” he added, "because they were so motivated.”

Andrew Agudo, principal of Engelwood Elementary in east Orlando, got an email about the new program and immediately thought of Taylor Montoya, who has been a classroom assistant at the school for about four years.

“She’s terrific,” he said. “I could see that talent in her.”

He recommended she apply, knowing he’d hire her if she had the needed credentials.

Montoya, 28, said the program initially sounded too good to be true.

But then she realized the evening classes meshed with her schedule and, though she needed a loan to cover some costs, it was a small one with a manageable payoff plan. Soon, she was back in college.

“It was definitely a lot of work,” she said, but she’s kept the end goal in mind.

Not only will the salary hike make a “big, big difference” but so will her change in status from aide to teacher.

“I just want to do things my way,” she said. "I do a lot, but do more than I already do.”

The 14 students in the inaugural pathways group took every class together and helped and encouraged each other as the semester wore on, Montoya said.

"Nobody is giving up,” she said.

Doe, who works at Cypress Creek High School in south Orange, said returning to college many years after she completed her AA degree was “scary, scary, scary." But it was also exciting and, as she successfully completed her first classes, confidence-boosting.

“This was just a blessing,” she said. “Each and every one of us are so grateful for this program.”

lpostal@orlandosentinel.com

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