Starting next month, Waco Independent School District plans to recruit future educators who still need their teaching certificates for a program that will allow them to earn their certificates and, eventually, a master’s degree, all on the district’s tab.

In January, the Transformation Waco board of trustees approved the posting of a request for proposals for a contractor to provide a combined master’s degree and alternative certification program, which is a nontraditional path to earn a teaching certificate that allows college graduates to teach while completing the certification requirements. The pilot program will be restricted to Waco ISD’s five Transformation Waco schools.

State grants awarded to Transformation Waco will pay for the program, although a definite cost will not be determined until a contractor is selected, said Robin McDurham, CEO of the in-district charter school system known as Transformation Waco. Transformation Zone staff is interviewing potential contractors now.

The school district intends for the alternative certification program to combat high teacher turnover in Waco ISD, particularly in the Transformation Waco schools, McDurham said. For the past three years, Waco ISD averaged a 24 percent teacher turnover rate, losing more than 200 teachers a year, compared to the statewide average of 16 percent. The district hired 204 new teachers for this school year, including 87 who were completing an alternative certification program.

“We want to follow the research that says that teachers stay in high-poverty schools because they have a cohort of colleagues who are working toward the same goals,” McDurham said. “Dallas, for instance, has a program they’ve built upon that research, and they recruit their best teachers to chronically low-performing schools in cohorts. Dallas has a talent base that’s so big they can do that. Waco ISD cannot recruit high-performing teachers without gutting other schools.”

The five Transformation Waco schools are Indian Spring Middle School, G.W. Carver Middle School, Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School and J.H. Hines Elementary School.

‘Optimal’ teaching route

Dallas ISD created its alternative certification program almost two decades ago, but the district recently redesigned it to compete with other school districts in the area, said Torey Willis, alternative certification program director. For professionals changing careers, the program is the “optimal route” for them to earn their teaching certifications, Willis said.

“The nation is chewing through teachers,” McDurham said. “They’re leaving the field in really high numbers.”

Typically, teachers leave the profession in the first three years of teaching, she said. That is why the alternative certification program has the additional master’s degree component, which requires teachers to remain with the district during the three years it takes to earn their master’s and for two subsequent years.

Incentive to stay

Often, teachers with alternative certifications leave education because they set high expectations for themselves in the field in which they earned their degree and do not know how to apply their degree to teaching, McDurham said. They do not have the experience in teaching to know they are doing well, but this program will provide support for those teachers and a master’s degree incentive for them to stay.

“The teachers who are certified this year will have a role with the next cohort because that’s what we want. We want to build the team where everyone is working together toward the same outcomes and that the habits that are formed are habits in which iron sharpens iron,” she said. “We know that a master’s degree isn’t critical to the success of an alternative certification teacher, but we’re paying for the master’s degree because we know it will help, and we also know we want to recruit someone who wants to get their master’s degree.”

This will give the district the ability to pick high-quality candidates to participate in the program, McDurham said. The district knows the program will be competitive because it already has received calls about it, and it has not been formally announced.

“You want someone who wants to grow, not just a job,” said Donna McKethan, the director of career and technical education in the district who also has taught alternative certification programs. “That master’s piece does that.”

Willis said her advice to a district starting a new alternative certification program is to know the market and what other programs are offered in the area. Waco ISD should find ways to set itself apart from other programs, and that can be done by leveraging staff with a “high pedigree” to help with it, she said. She also said Waco ISD should take advantage of training opportunities offered by the Texas Education Agency.

“It’s critical that any program interfaces with the agency to succeed,” Willis said.

Dallas ISD’s alternative certification program is a large contributor to the district’s teacher growth, she said. She recruits various professionals but focuses on substitute teachers and teacher assistants because they already have an interest in education and the district wants to maintain that talent base.

If all goes as planned, Transformation Waco will recruit potential teachers next month, and chosen applicants will start teaching in summer school, which lasts four to six weeks, McDurham said. The new teachers will receive feedback and support from veteran teachers during the initial summer workshop.

“They’ll have a teaching experience while they’re taking courses,” she said. “And then they’ll have time to reflect on that teaching experience and get guidance before the school year starts on some of those key challenges that you encounter during your first year of teaching.”

An alternative certification program usually costs between $4,000 and $6,000, while a master’s degree costs between $12,000 and $19,000, McDurham said. Transformation Waco will cover the costs while it works out the kinks in the pilot program, but eventually applicants will have to pay for at least some of the program if the school district wants to sustain it.

Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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