How District 214's Educator Prep program is training teachers early to address shortage
Four weeks into a hands-on internship working with students with behavioral issues, Brandon Zuniga knew he wanted to become a teacher.
In the spring, Zuniga helped run activities in a special-needs physical education class at Timber Ridge School in Arlington Heights, ensuring students "stay on task," because they can get hyper.
"I enjoyed it a lot," said the 17-year-old Rolling Meadows High School senior enrolled in Northwest Suburban High School District 214's Educator Prep program, which helps prepare high school students to become licensed teachers.
Zuniga plans to major in early childhood education with a minor in physical education. He is the only male student enrolled in the program.
"My favorite part is after I give a new idea to a student, I just like the smile on their face indicating they enjoy learning," he said. "When they get that 'aha' moment, that's probably the most rewarding thing in this."
Investing in such programs is key to addressing a statewide teacher shortage, state education officials say.
At District 214, participants take a three-year sequence of courses, earn early college credit and get experience co-teaching and supporting teachers in real classrooms. They complete four internship rotations in elementary, middle school, English language learner and special education classrooms at various schools.
This year, the Joyce Foundation and Illinois P-20 Council funded 21 school districts to expand and create similar teaching career paths modeled after District 214's program. Grant recipients include District 214, Plainfield District 202 and Indian Prairie District 204.
"One way to build an educator workforce is to help build the program in high schools," said Stephanie Banchero, education program director for The Joyce Foundation. "District 214 is unique. They do two things that are really smart: help kids get college credit while in high school, (and) they are giving them exposure to the profession. Those are two key components to a very strong pathway."
High school teacher preparation programs also help train people who ultimately might return to work in their communities, Banchero said.
"Research shows that teachers work within 15 miles of where they grew up," Banchero said. "So growing teachers in the community where they are probably going to live is a good idea."
District 214's Educator Prep program, started in 2016, is the most developed education career program at the high school level that other school districts have sought to emulate, officials said.
During the last four years, 350 participants have signed letters of intent to pursue careers in education, and roughly 1,000 students are taking education courses at six district sites.
Last school year, more than 100 students participated in teacher internships in partnership with nine feeder elementary districts: Arlington Heights District 25, Elk Grove Township District 59, Fremont District 79, Palatine District 15, Prospect Heights District 23, River Trails District 26, North Shore District 112, Wheeling-Buffalo Grove District 21 and the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization.
Students who complete Educator Prep and its capstone course, Education Academy, are guaranteed placement in education degree programs at Northeastern Illinois University and National Louis University. The program's first graduates will matriculate in two years.
District 214 also supports those students in college, offering professional development and guaranteed student-teaching placements in-district and with partner schools within its communities.
"We are holding them close to us, changing our community from within," said Megan Knight, District 214 director of academic pathways and programs. "At the end of the day, our highest priority is we need our classrooms to be staffed by teachers who reflect the changing demographics of our schools. We need our students to see themselves in the people they see standing in front of them every day."
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