A pipeline created by the University of Northern Colorado to get teachers into urban schools in the Denver-metro area led Andy Washington to the kindergarten class at Elkhart Elementary in Aurora this fall.
There, Washington has found her niche as a paid paraprofessional at a school she attended in fourth and fifth grades. Washington plans to get her teaching certificate and return to Elkhart as a full-time teacher.
“I don’t know, I just love kindergartners,” he said. “They ask the neatest questions about things; they just have such a unique outlook.”
Washington is among 140 would-be teachers enrolled at UNC’s Center for Urban Education, an 18-year-old program based at the Lowry campus in Denver. It is one of more than 40 alternative teacher-preparation programs approved by Colorado officials and the only one in the state that requires students to spend a few hours a day in a classroom.
Center for Urban Education students spend mornings working as paid paraprofessionals in about 130 metro-area schools, their tasks and responsibilities increasing as they gain experience. Afternoons are spent in courses at the Lowry campus. By the third year of their four-year track, the students are developing plans for behavioral class management and creating lesson plans.
This trial-by-fire method means the program’s graduates are well-equipped to handle just about any classroom situation, even in the first years on the job, center director Rosanne Fulton said. Graduating students leave UNC with a solid background leading coursework in physical education, art, music, health, math, literacy, social studies and science. They also have experience teaching English to students who primarily speak another language, Fulton said.
The enrollees, more than 50 percent of whom are minorities, spend their mornings working at schools with overwhelmingly black and Latino student populations. Fulton and others hope Washington and the other UNC paraprofessionals will serve as inspiration for the elementary school students they assist. The kids might be inspired to become teachers themselves. Previously, few students at inner city schools saw themselves as teacher material, Fulton said.
“That’s a big question these days: ‘Where are the teacher candidates of color?’ ” Fulton said. “Our program helps fill that gap.
“I speak to a lot of these kids who think they aren’t smart enough to be teachers. I say, ‘C’mon, all you need is the right push and you will do just as well as anybody else.’ ”
By graduation, the UNC students accumulate more than 3,000 hours in the classroom. In comparison, Fulton said, traditional teacher-preparation programs offer students about 800 hours in the classroom. That additional time in the classroom provides valuable lessons that can’t be taught in a university setting, Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher said.
“What are you going to do when you first get an eraser thrown at your head?” Schumacher said. “The teacher candidates the center sends us know how to handle those situations. They usually turn out to be our best teachers.”