This story on community college teacher training was produced by the Seattle Times as part of Tackling Teacher Shortages, an ongoing series revealing critical areas of school staffing — examining both overlooked challenges and promising solutions — with an eye toward the gaps that most affect kids and families. The series is part of an eight-newsroom collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee in California, The Hechinger Report, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
In her second-grade classroom outside Seattle, Fatima Nuñez Ardon often tells her students stories about everyday people realizing their dreams. One day, for example, she talked about Salvadoran American NASA astronaut Francisco Rubio and his journey to the International Space Station.
Another day, she told them her own life’s story — how she, an El Salvadoran immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in middle school speaking very little English, came to be a teacher.
Nuñez Ardon took an unusual path to the classroom: She earned her teaching degree through evening classes at a community college, while living at home and raising her four children.
Community college-based teaching programs like this are rare, but growing. They can dramatically cut the cost and raise the convenience of earning a teaching degree, while making a job in education accessible to a wider diversity of people.
In Washington, nine community colleges offer education degrees. Nationally, Community College Baccalaureate Association data indicates just six other states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico — offer baccalaureate degrees related to K-12 education. (Two other states, Texas and Wyoming, offer early childhood education degrees.)
The expansion comes at a good time: Teacher shortages have worsened in the past decade, and fewer undergraduates are going into teacher training programs. A report in March from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education showed that the number of people completing a teacher-education program declined by almost a third between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years. And many educators fear the pandemic worsened the crisis.
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More community colleges around the country are starting to offer teacher education, said CCBA President Angela Kersenbrock. In all, 51 community college-based K-12 teaching programs have launched across the country since the early 2000s.
And they’re attracting students like Nuñez Ardon, who became certified to run a K-8 classroom in June, at the age of 36. It’s likely she wouldn’t have pursued a classroom career otherwise.
Teacher shortages predate the pandemic. For years, the number of people graduating from teacher education programs has fallen short of teacher demand. In 2018, 57,000 fewer students nationwide earned education degrees than in 2011.
A 2021 report from the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) found that schools were forced to lean on individuals who had not completed certification requirements to fill the gaps, and waivers had risen to 8,080 in the 2019-20 school year from less than 2,800 a decade prior.
The state has in recent years encouraged “Grow Your Own” programs, or alternative pathways to classroom certification that attract local talent. Some are run by districts, while others are college or university efforts. They’re seen both as a way to buffer the teacher shortage and to grow a workforce more representative of the student body. Statewide, 50 percent of Washington students are people of color, while 87 percent of classroom teachers are white.
Community college baccalaureates in education are already helping buffer Washington’s teacher shortage, the PESB found.
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“It’s a highly rigorous program,” said Elizabeth Paulino, who runs Yakima Valley College’s teacher education baccalaureate program.
Theirs is a model much like those throughout the rest of the state. Teacher candidates come in with an associate degree and spend two years taking classes in education, primarily in the evenings. Then, weeks before the second and final year of the program begins, candidates begin a residency at a partner school.
Some research suggests this yearlong immersion helps with retention, since graduates know what they’re getting into, Paulino said. “What better way of teaching them about their teaching profession than to immerse them fully?”
Nationally, Community College Baccalaureate Association data indicates seven states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington — offer baccalaureate degrees related to K-12 education.
Resident teachers are assigned mentors who come recommended by their principal or superintendent and have at least three years of classroom experience, she said.
While juggling their work and school load, teacher candidates are also taking a series of tests required by the state to get certified. “By the time they finish their residency, they have fulfilled all of their requirements not only of the program but also of the state.”
Many Washington colleges offer extra endorsement programs for those interested. Teachers in Yakima, where a significant part of the population speaks only Spanish, have access to an English Language Learner endorsement. Highline offers ELL and special education endorsements — two areas of specialty in which teacher shortages have been acute.
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There has been pushback against community college baccalaureates in education in Washington and nationally, as universities with teacher education programs grapple with their yearslong decline in enrollment, said Debra Bragg, the founder and former director of the University of Washington’s Community College Research Initiatives.
Community colleges argue that they’re a good place for teacher training because they’re open-access — there is no selective admissions process to get in — and that they “are attracting students that the universities probably are not attracting and probably won’t attract,” she said.
Nuñez Ardon said this was the case for her. For one thing, she was place-bound by her growing family, and the nearby University of Washington doesn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in teacher education.
Cost was another important factor. Tuition and required fees for one year at Western Washington University — one of the nearest public four-year universities — come to more than $10,700; when housing, meals and supplies are factored in, the yearly cost is about $30,000. The program Nuñez Ardon attended at Highline College costs roughly $7,100 a year, allowed her to live at home and accommodated her work schedule.
Because of their local and open-access qualities, community colleges could help fill the teacher supply gap, said Bragg. What’s more, she said, “If it’s important for us to prepare teachers who look like students in their community, representing that diversity of the community, then it might make sense to look at what the community colleges are doing.”
“We realized how thirsty the community was to become teachers.”
Connie Smejkal, dean of teacher education at Centralia College
At Pierce College, in Puyallup, Washington, the propelling force for creating the program was paraprofessionals who were working in local school districts and enrolling in the early childhood education program with the hope of becoming certified teachers. But that associate degree program didn’t lead to teacher certification.
When the college began considering an elementary education baccalaureate program to meet community interest, there was some pushback from Central Washington University, which is well-known for its teacher education program and shares a sub-campus with Pierce College.
But once leaders from the two colleges’ education departments were able to discuss the circumstances, they came to realize that the college and university programs would serve different demographics, said Leesa Thomas, Pierce’s director of education programs. The result was a strengthened relationship between the two.
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Many of Washington’s other education baccalaureates grew in response to demand from local schools.
Connie Smejkal, dean of teacher education at Centralia College, said area superintendents were calling frequently to say they were struggling to hire teachers. It also was tough to retain them because they recruited anyone who applied, she said, “rather than picking really high-quality candidates. Their need was extraordinary.”
In fall of 2016, Centralia and Grays Harbor community colleges launched a teacher education baccalaureate in collaboration, anticipating that neither would have enough students to run a full program on their own. Each planned to have an initial cohort of 12 teacher candidates. But Smejkal said student interest in the program was as hot as school demand: There were more than 80 applicants to Centralia alone for the first cohort. The school admitted 52 of them the first year.
“If it’s important for us to prepare teachers who look like students in their community, representing that diversity of the community, then it might make sense to look at what the community colleges are doing.”
Debra Bragg, the founder and former director of the University of Washington’s Community College Research Initiative
“We realized how thirsty the community was to become teachers,” she said. The next year, Centralia and Grays Harbor formed their own separate programs. Each welcomed their sixth cohort this fall, and between the two schools, 175 people have completed degrees. The majority of their graduates go on to teach in local classrooms. Smejkal said everyone from last year’s cohort who was interested in classroom teaching had signed a contract with a school before graduating.
For both the teacher candidates filling these college programs and the school districts recruiting from them, Washington’s few education baccalaureates are making a small but notable impact.
Peter Finch, superintendent of West Valley School District in Yakima, said he’s experienced no shortage of general education teachers since the launch of Yakima Valley College’s program.
He also said the teachers hired from the local program have so far been predominantly Latinx, and half had been bilingual Spanish-English speakers, better matching the district’s student demographic and support needs. Some new hires are now pursuing special education endorsements, which will eventually help to fill another gap, “so that’s excellent,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nuñez Ardon spends her days at Madrona Elementary as a teacher and role model to young students she sees herself in — and in whom she hopes to inspire the same curiosity and passion to learn.