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More And More Teachers Aren’t Fully Trained — And That Could Be A Good Thing

Elijah Gonzalez helps a student with an assignment at Thrive Public School, D...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Elijah Gonzalez helps a student with an assignment at Thrive Public School, Dec. 5, 2016.

To staff their classrooms for the 2015-2016 school year, districts in San Diego and Imperial counties hired more than 700 teachers who had not yet completed their training.

That alarming statistic is the kind many use to illustrate just how severely the state needs teachers. With the number of people pursuing a teaching career near historic lows, districts have had to turn to teachers with so-called emergency credentials. That includes individuals who are working toward a full credential and those who are not yet qualified to enter a credential program. Their ranks have doubled to more than 10,000 since 2012, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

But where many see a troubling trend, others see a promising solution.

Thrive Public Schools, a charter school operator in San Diego's Mid City area, plans to launch its own teacher preparation program this fall. It will bring more teachers with provisional credentials to the school to work and study.

RELATED: Resolving San Diego’s Teacher Shortage With Money, Leadership And Pizza

Thrive Director Nicole Assisi said she believes this residency-style approach will bring more people into the profession — and keep them there.

"For people who are new into teaching, working alongside somebody and really doing an apprenticeship model is really exciting," Assisi said. "I remember when I was a teacher. Year one, all of a sudden I finished my credentialing program and here I was alone in a classroom with 35 kids."

That harsh transition into the working world (think about your first 9-to-5 job, then add 35 children to the mix) leads as many as 40 percent of teachers to leave the profession within their first five years, according to the Learning Policy Institute. And that is not helping with the teacher shortage.

RELATED: San Diego Teachers: What Makes Them Stay?

Assisi said on-the-job programs can help smooth that transition.

Take Elijah Gonzalez, a special education teacher at Thrive whom KPBS has been following during his first year on the job. He is currently earning his credential through National University as a Teach For America corps member.

Video by Matthew Bowler

Last school year, districts in San Diego and Imperial counties had to hire more than 700 teachers who had not yet finished their training. Where many see a troubling trend, others see a promising solution.

Gonzalez said having his own teacher and classmates give him an edge.

"The burnout isn’t as bad if you have someone you can go to when you have questions," he said.

While it is common for new teachers to be paired up with a mentor on campus, on-the-job credential programs formalize that relationship with required meetings, classroom observation and reporting. Teachers in residence also get to apply their learning every day and troubleshoot real-world problems.

"Compared to the student who comes through in a traditional pathway — they take all their courses, they do some fieldwork, then they do a bigger chunk of student teaching at the end — in the (residencies) your fieldwork is every single day while you're taking classes and while you're engaging with the profession," said Judy Mantle, dean of National's Sanford College of Education, where Gonzalez is studying.

Gonzalez said the built-in support and on-the-job experience helped him manage the more high-stakes responsibilities special education teachers take on. They must plan and provide services for students with special needs as required by federal law. A slip-up can result in a lawsuit.

"It definitely helped me the first couple of months getting into the groove of special education — being more of the case manager," Gonzalez said. "I was responsible for the (individual education plan) documents, setting up all the meetings, making sure the (needs) were met."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Chris Millow listens to a lesson for his teacher credential program at High Tech High, April 26, 2017.

High Tech High has been doing this kind of credentialing since 2004. Julie Holmes, director of credential operations at the school, said the vast majority of High Tech High teachers who’ve gone through the program are still at the school. Data is not available for those who teach at other schools.

Chris Millow is finishing his second year in the credential program and teaches twelfth-grade environmental science. He said he can see himself continuing down that road for a long time.

"I kind of always knew I wanted to go into education, but I wanted to have a really foundational knowledge of the sciences and a lot of hands-on experience," Millow said.

That is another reason some are banking on residencies — it brings in midcareer teachers who have a better idea of what they want to do.

At 33, Millow has worked in outreach for the Audubon Society and earned a master's in ecology.

"One of the things I always think about is this idea of having perspective," he said. "How can I get in front of a bunch of people and teach them if I don't have any experience in the real world, if I can't reference any of my own experiences and things that I've done that have helped me learn and grow?"

Millow said his experience outside of the classroom also gives him confidence when faced with a challenge.

"Of course I question myself all the time," he said. "But I think having been able to build that confidence over the years and being like, ‘No, I know how to set up an experiment,’ or, ‘I know how to do fieldwork,’ and I’ve had experience with all these things and can share those, I feel more confident."

High Tech High and Thrive are not the only institutions that see this kind of training as a solution. Teach for America has been placing teachers with provisional credentials in San Diego County schools since 2013. San Diego Unified also has when it cannot recruit enough fully credentialed teachers; that was not the case this school year. And the California State University system offers an online credential program for educators with provisional licenses.

Research suggests they are on to something. While little data exists on the educational outcomes of students with these kinds of teachers, the Learning Policy Institute says residencies recruit more diverse individuals into the field, and they are twice as likely as others to stay. Both are factors linked to student success.

RELATED: Having Just One Black Teacher Can Keep Black Kids In School

Key Characteristics Of Strong Residencies:

–Strong district/university partnerships

–Coursework about teaching and learning tightly integrated with clinical practice

–Full-year residency teaching alongside an expert mentor teacher

–High-ability, diverse candidates recruited to meet specific district hiring needs, typically in fields where there are shortages

–Financial support for residents in exchange for a three- to five-year teaching commitment

–Cohorts of residents placed in “teaching schools” that model good practices with diverse learners and are designed to help novices learn to teach

–Expert mentor teachers who co-teach with residents

–Ongoing mentoring and support for graduates

Source: Learning Policy Institute

Thrive teacher Gonzalez will begin his second year training and teaching in the fall. So far, he is sticking around.

"I'm definitely staying in teaching," Gonzalez said.

But on-the-job credentialing programs are not a panacea for California's teacher shortage.

"I love Thrive, I love the environment, I believe in the mission," Gonzalez said. "But if I want to stay in California and continue living in California, I have to look at my budget."

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