Seeking to fill difficult instructional positions and expose more students to subjects with contemporary relevance, a Colorado school district will train and license its own teachers this year.
On November 9, 2006 the Colorado State Board of Education voted 7-1 to grant the Douglas County School District waivers from state licensing requirements so its leaders can credential teachers through its own soon-to-be-developed training facility, the Learning Center.
The two-year pilot program is scheduled to start placing teachers in classrooms in the fall of 2007, with the state reserving the right of review twice a year.
“I was impressed that they took a good hard look at their needs and what to do about their problems, and came up with a good, solid proposal,” said Randy DeHoff, a state board of education member whose district includes Douglas County.
The program is designed to operate on two tracks.
It will prepare certified teaching applicants to fill high-demand specialties, such as special education, and will equip passionate professionals with basic classroom tools to instruct in areas not common to most curricula, including engineering software use, agronomy, and foreign languages such as Chinese and Arabic.
“To do that requires us to be unburdened from some of the regulations we get from the state level,” said Pat McGraw, Douglas County School District chief of staff. He said the district will be strengthened by the increased ability to recruit candidates while tailoring the program to be more convenient for and affordable to its teachers.
In 2006, the Colorado Senate Education Committee rejected a legislative proposal that would have enabled Douglas County to put its program into effect. Lawmakers counseled district leaders to take their case to the state board of education, which heard the proposal at its May 2006 meeting. Six months later, the Board greenlighted the program.
“Douglas County is already a high-performing district with motivated kids,” McGraw said. “We wanted to show we can maintain high performance while doing this.”
The district’s inability to fill teaching positions in certain specialties has held it back. Learning Center Director Mike Lynch said Douglas County typically attracts 5,000 applicants for 500 openings, but still had 23 special education vacancies 10 days after the 2006-07 school year began.
Lynch said the district will be able to draw from the many “qualified, quality applicants” not hired for the positions to which they originally applied–for example, teaching fourth grade or high school English–and redirect them into a needed field. The Learning Center will provide mentorship and support as teachers earn special education endorsements by learning simultaneously through formal classwork and on-the-job training.
“We want to be not only a part of the conversation to help [put] the brightest and best in front of our kids, but also to be part of the solution instead of just complaining all the time about shortages,” Lynch said. “We have a faster way to train to give you competencies in an area.”
McGraw said the Learning Center will focus on the demands faced by each school. “This isn’t going to be centrally run,” he said. “It’ll be driven by site needs.”
Douglas County’s other imminent innovation is the Professionals in Residence (PIR) program, which will bring outside experts into the classroom to impart specialized knowledge to students.
“Why not?” said Lynch. “As long as they’re under the same scrutiny that our own teachers are, as long as they’re not a threat to the property rights of those teachers who have gone through the licensure process.”
Douglas County, a suburban area south of Denver, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. The business and technological sectors are thriving in the region, but district officials said many students are missing the connection between their current coursework and future career opportunities.
“If we allow kids the chance early on to see what these jobs are about, we’ll have them better prepared for college and what lies ahead,” McGraw said.
Lynch said the Learning Center’s efforts could be reproduced by other school district leaders in more urban or rural settings.
“We hope with our successes that other people can learn from us,” Lynch said.
“I think it’s something that could be tailored to other school district needs,” DeHoff said. “Others can say, ‘We’ve got a teacher shortage, we’ve got qualified people, and here’s a way to do it.'”
For Lynch, the hard work of getting Douglas County’s Learning Center established and operational is guided by a sense of urgency.
“We have to do something differently, or we’re going to get the same results, and those results are shortages in specialized, hard-to-fill areas,” Lynch said.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.