AISD Fills Pipeline From Within

New partnership helps teachers' aides get degrees, meet district bilingual gap

Teachers' aide Grace Arevalo
Teachers' aide Grace Arevalo (Photo By John Anderson)

As AISD struggles to find and keep enough bilingual teachers to serve a student body where about one in six students is classified as "limited English proficiency," a new "teacher pipeline" program is banking on the idea that the most promising candidates for the jobs are already in the classrooms. These are the district's 740 teachers' aides, employees without teaching certificates, but with years of experience working with some of AISD's most challenged students.

The pipeline, a collaboration between AISD, St. Edward's University, and Austin Community College, is designed to tap into the potential of bilingual aides by helping them overcome the single (yet enormous) obstacle between them and certification – a college degree. However, two months into the program, participants are already finding that for busy working parents, earning the degree that will qualify them to teach can sometimes be harder than teaching itself. "It's awesome. I love it. I really do," said Grace Arevalo, an aide at Cunningham Elementary who is enthusiastically participating in her program. "But I'm scared I'm not going to finish because it's hard. I have my kids, and my work, and then my schoolwork, too."

The pipeline is designed to make it easier for aides like Arevalo to earn credit while working and caring for a family. Participants, chosen based on their experience and principals' recommendations, earn their first 40 credits at ACC, where they are eligible for a tuition waiver through a state program that offsets tuition for aides studying at public colleges. However, ACC does not offer the bachelor's degree they need for certification, so participants will transfer to St. Edward's to finish their degrees. St. Ed's will pitch in by counting the aides' hands-on experience as credit, so they can graduate with 120 classroom hours (including the 40 earned at ACC) instead of the normal 160.

However, because St. Ed's is a private university, the aides cannot use the tuition-waiver program – and classes cost $532 per credit hour. The college hopes to find grant money to help lower that cost by the time the first pipeline participants are ready to transfer over. Claudia Santamaria of Austin Interfaith, the advocacy group that led the effort to develop the pipeline program, admits it would have been cheaper to have worked with a public university like UT or Texas State University, but early efforts to get public universities to the table fizzled out. "St. Edward's stepped up to the plate, and we had to go where the energy was," she said.

The final partner in the pipeline is AISD, which offers the aides a half-day off a week for classes and has committed to hiring the aides when they finish the program. That makes sense – AISD is desperate for bilingual teachers, and currently fills the need largely through alternative certification programs. About 90 of the 138 bilingual teachers AISD hired this year came from that route, which allows candidates with bachelor's degrees in a field other than teaching to quickly earn teaching certificates. These programs are increasingly popular; ACC, for example, recently got a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop an alternative certification program specifically for bilingual applicants.

However, even as alternative certification helps fill vacancies by minimizing the time and financial commitment it takes to get into teaching, that same factor makes it easier for some teachers to walk away when things get tough. And teacher turnover is already a huge problem in AISD – about 40% of AISD's teachers have fewer than five years of experience, because so many new hires realize in a matter of years that teaching (or AISD) isn't for them. In a situation like that, the fact that teaching aides have already demonstrated a commitment to AISD makes them particularly attractive. "They've already given us four or five years," said Della May Moore, AISD's director of bilingual education. "They're invested in public education. So it's worth our investment to have them certified as teachers."

In addition, Santa Maria points out that many aides have valuable community and cultural ties to the students they teach. "These are people who live in the neighborhoods," she said. "They really understand the problems of these schools, so there's no shock when they hit the school straight out of a computer tech job and an alternative certification program."

But even with the pipeline program, the process is slow going, and some participants have already gotten discouraged. Two months into the school year, only 14 of the 20 aides who were chosen to participate remain. "It's hard to find time to study and work, and be a mom and a wife," said Eva Rios-Lleverino of Capital IDEA, a nonprofit that helps Austinites learn job skills, which is case-managing the participants to help them with issues like transportation and child care. "One problem is that some of their husbands don't see the fact that they're going to school very positively. They're expecting them to be there for the kids, to be a wife and mom, not a student."

Responding to these sorts of family pressures, Capital IDEA and Austin Interfaith this week hosted a Family Back-to-School Night at ACC, aimed at convincing families that the benefits of mom's getting a degree outweigh the short-term sacrifices. But for Arevalo, the rewards are already well worth the challenges. As a certified teacher, she will earn a good deal more than her current rate of $11.30 an hour – probably around $36,000 a year. In addition, she'll earn bonuses for teaching bilingual or special education classes, bonuses that aides in the same classes don't earn.

Plus, Arevalo actually attended St. Ed's to study bilingual education in the 1990s before family and financial pressures led her to drop out. Graduating, she says, will allow her to finish what she started, will make her the first member of her family to earn a college degree, and give her access to a career she already knows she loves.

"Teaching's not for everybody," she said. "But it's been my dream since I was in second grade."

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Austin ISD, AISD, bilingual education, teacher's aides, teacher training, Claudia Santa Maria, Austin Interfaith, ACC, St. Edward's University, Grace Arevalo, Capital IDEA, alternative certification

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