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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 January 25 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Taking The Alternate Route

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Taking The Alternate Route

Career-Changers Turn To Colleges For Teacher Training
By Paul Bradley

They are doctors and lawyers, chefs and waitresses, journalists and brokers.

They have college degrees, life experience and share an admirable work ethic.

As the American economy has shed more than 6 million jobs since the recession began 18 months ago, they have seen their livelihoods threatened, or worse, their professions disappear altogether.

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Now, thousands of them are trying to reinvent themselves, casting about for a vocation with the kind of stability that will allow them to raise their families and prosper in an uncertain economy.

Increasing numbers of them are trying to become teachers, turning to community colleges and their flourishing alternative certification programs, and taking a non-traditional route to public and private school classrooms.

Across the county, colleges report that the sagging economy — and the fact that cash-starved public school districts across the country are laying off teachers —
has done nothing to slow the flow of professionals arriving at community colleges and other institutions to earn a teaching certificate.

“I see it as an area of strong growth for community colleges,” said Ray A. Ostos, executive director of the National Association of Community College Teacher Education Programs. “Many professionals who have lost their jobs are looking at teaching careers. I think many of them see it as a stable profession in an uncertain world.”

According to the National Center for Alternative Certification, a Washington-based advocacy group, 62,000 alternate-route teachers were certified to work in classrooms in 2008, about one-third of all teachers hired by school districts nationwide. Since the first alternative route program was launched in New Jersey 25 years ago, about 500,000 people have obtained their certification to teach through alternative routes, according to NCAC statistics.

Alternative route programs exist in all 50 states, and they vary widely in academic requirements. A relatively small but growing number of the nation’s 600 alternative route programs are administered at community colleges.

In an article entitled “Teaching While Learning,” written for Phi Delta Kappa International, C. Emily Feistritzer, president and chief executive officer of the NCAC and the National Center for Education Information, wrote that alternate route programs have always been based on need.

“The success of alternative routes to teaching is largely attributable to the fact that these pathways to teaching are market-driven,” she wrote. “They have been created all over the country to meet demand for specific schools where there is a demand for teachers.”

A Simple Premise

Alternate routes to teaching careers are based on a simple premise: holders of bachelor’s degrees well-grounded in the subject matter that they will teach have much to offer, including maturity and life experience, and can be taught to be effective teachers through cost-efficient, on-the-job training programs. Before creation of the alternate route programs, the only way to get into the classrooms was through the traditional college school-of-education route.

Most alternative certification programs can be found in urban areas around the country and in rural regions throughout the South and the Eastern and Western U.S. That’s where the need for teachers is the greatest. Likewise, alterative programs produce more math, science and special education teachers because those are subject areas where the need is most acute.

But even as colleges are seeing a sharp increase in the number of students seeking teaching certificates, the market for teachers has drastically changed due to the economic downturn. Simultaneously, school districts around the country are laying off teachers as older teachers postpone retirement due to the economic calamity which devastated their retirement accounts.

That means colleges are giving their prospective students a strong dose of reality at orientation sessions.

Ilene Kleinman, director of the Division of Continuing Education and Community Outreach at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, said counselors are frank with prospective teachers. Bergen is among 15 community colleges in New Jersey that for the past eight years have partnered with New Jersey City University on the New Pathways to Teaching program.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education, about one-third of new teachers entering New Jersey classrooms now come through alterative route certifications.

“There is a lot of demand for teachers with a background in math, science or language,” Kleinman said. “But for people who have a liberal arts degree, they might have some trouble finding a job. The requirements for teachers have been tightened significantly. Those people might not be able to teach at all at the elementary level.

“Because I have a conscious, I can’t take the $8,000 the programs costs and not have them be marketable at the end. We have to be very honest with people. But what we are finding is people are willing to take the chance.”

A Demanding Program

“We have to select good candidates,” she added. “Someone who is a scientist and has worked in a lab by himself for the past 20 years and has no kids probably is not a very good candidate to be a third-grade teacher.”

Candidates in New Jersey are also admonished that the academic program required to complete the alternative route is demanding. While courses are held at community colleges, the work is really at the post-graduate level, said Linda Milstein, director of community colleges for New Pathways to Teaching and vice president for outreach, business and community development at Brookdale Community College.

“We really want candidates to understand the whole process,” she said. “We give people a good reality check. The academic program is very demanding.”

“Some people believe that if you can’t do anything else, you can teach. But that is not true. Teaching is a difficult job.”

In New Jersey, alternate route certification is a multi-step process. Candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree need a certificate of eligibility from the state, proving their college work meets requirements, and must pass the Praxis standardized test in the area they want to teach. Armed with a provisional certification, they then must find a job, complete 200 hours of training while working as a teacher and work with a mentor.

Typically, the number of students reaching the second phase drops off considerably from the first phase, Milstein said. That trend has been exacerbated during the economic downturn, she added, as enrollees have encountered a tough time finding jobs.

Prospective teachers also must be disavowed of the notion that teaching is an easy job marked by 8-to-3 workdays and summers off, said Ed Bonahue, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Florida’s Santa Fe College.

Santa Fe College is among the state’s 27 community colleges in Florida that are home to Educator Preparation Institutes. They provide an alternate route to teacher certification for mid-career professionals and college graduates who were not education majors.

In Florida, students with a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college or university can enter the EPI program, which consists of instruction designed to prepare them to take the Florida Teacher Certification Exam. Students also must demonstrate general knowledge and competence in their subject area.

The EPIs were launched five years ago, and this year, 120 students are enrolled at Santa Fe’s EPI, Bonahue said.

“We tell prospective students that teaching is a very high-regulated profession,” he said. “There is a lot of assessment and accountability. The pay is not great. Parents think nothing of calling them at home.”

Plus 50 Initiative

Santa Fe also works with the Plus 50 Initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges. The initiative is a three-year effort to identify a pilot group of two-year institutions to create or expand campus programs to engage the older-than-50 population in learning and re-training programs. The initiative is funded by a grant to AACC from The Atlantic Philanthropies.

“We are specifically recruiting seniors so they can consider teaching as a second career,” Bonahue said. “Most of them know what it is like to work with kids, because they have raised their own.”

Florida is also seeing an increase in the number of teachers with provisional certifications seeking full certification as a hedge against potential layoffs, said Carol Jones, EPI program coordinator at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Teachers in Florida can teach for three years on a provisional certificate before permanent certification is required.

The program is also experiencing a jump in overall enrollment, with 120 students now enrolled.

“I have a chef, I have a couple of lawyers, I have a couple of waitresses, I have a lot of former journalists,” she said. “We have people from all walks of life.”

The average age of students enrolled in the EPI at PHCC is 42, she said. Several students are in their 60s, and the oldest is more than 70 years old.

“We have a number of people who otherwise would have retired,” she said. “A lot of it is people coming back to school to do something they say that they always wanted to do. It’s service learning for a lot of people.”

Students enroll in EPI because they believe education is a stable profession, despite the current state of the economy, she said.

“No matter how bad the economy, they’re not going to close schools,” she said. “Kids will be there. You can’t stop teaching children.”

Many school districts welcome the alternatively certified teachers, she said.

“They have a choice of someone right out of college who has a degree in education, or, for example, a 45-year-old former journalist with life experience who has come to teaching from a completely different place,” Jones said.

And while the hiring of teachers has slowed due to the economy, the long-term demographic trends for the teaching profession remain in place. Florida, for example, still expects to have a need for 20,000 teachers by the year 2015 due to the retirement of teachers now 55 years old or older.

“The demand is going to be there,” Bonahue said. “The long-term trends have not changed. Community colleges are in a good position to provide this training. Our colleges have always provided the first two years of a bachelor’s degree.

“But we are also invested in vocational education. I think we can provide a crosswalk between the theory and the practice of teaching.”

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