Teacher certification pathway picks up steam

Published 9:38 am Thursday, June 22, 2023

During the 2022 General Assembly, Kentucky educators got a ninth option to work toward their teacher certification.

Now, that alternative pathway, designed to alleviate a teacher shortage, is picking up steam.

At its June meeting, the Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board approved 33 new partnerships between school districts and Kentucky universities creating Option 9 programs.

House Bill 277, which created Option 9, allows students to work in schools as classified staff while earning their bachelor’s degrees and initial teaching certifications.

While they cannot teach in an official capacity during the three-year program, students can work as instructional or teaching aides in school districts.

School districts partner with universities to offer work experience, coaching, mentorship and field experience to support individuals pursuing their bachelor’s degrees and teaching certification.

Option 9 is the state’s only alternative teaching certification pathway that does not require a bachelor’s degree for admission into the teacher preparation program.

Rep. Walker Thomas, R-Hopkinsville, sponsored the bill. He said that COVID brought to light a shortage of workers in multiple fields, including education.

“Our motivation is to try to get people going back into the teaching roles, and what we thought is if they could actually work in the school system while they’re working on their degree – they can’t teach but they can still do other classified jobs – then that would help them and it would be a lot more likely that once they get their degree, they might stay with that school system,” Thomas said.

“So it’s kind of a grow your own (program).”

To become an approved Option 9 partnership, programs must be designed to meet school districts’ needs, which could include developing teacher pipelines for the districts’ students, adding more employees from traditionally underrepresented populations or increasing teacher certifications in high-demand subject areas, according to the law.

School districts are responsible for making sure there are enough funds to support the candidates during their time in the program.

The benefit of the program is introducing students to the teaching environment early, Thomas said.

“They’re around the kids, they start getting to know the kids,” he said. “They’re actually learning so much off their mentors, which would be the teachers and the educators. And they can just see how the whole process is done.”

The EPSB approved 17 partnerships between the University of the Cumberlands and participating school districts at its latest meeting.

Northern Kentucky University had six partnerships approved, Midway University had five, Campbellsville University and the University of Louisville had two and Eastern Kentucky University had one.

UC was the first to be approved for Option 9 partnerships back in October 2022, when the EPSB approved agreements with Whitley and Lincoln County school districts.

Dr. Sheena Lawson, UC Option 9 director, said that in the seven months since, UC has added 36 additional partnerships across the commonwealth.

She said the number of participating students “grows every day.”

“Whenever (Option 9) came across my plate I thought absolutely, this is the best way to address that shortage of teachers that we’re experiencing here in Kentucky,” Lawson said.

Many participants are non-traditional students who come from UC’s online teaching program, which is just as rigorous as its traditional program, she added.

“Option 9 just allows them to continue that work and feed their family and pay their bills while they’re getting their degree,” Lawson said.

Carroll County School District was one of several dozen school districts approved for Option 9 partnerships this month – one with Campbellsville University and the other with NKU.

Jonica Ray, Carroll County assistant superintendent and chief academic officer, said there are at least four people already enrolled in the program.

“Like every other person in Kentucky right now, we are struggling to get certified teachers. And we have some really talented instructional assistants that we feel like would be good candidates for our teaching positions,” Ray said.

“… I think that now that we’ve learned more about it, and we realize that basically this is just something that the universities are offering to make this process a little bit easier for our paraprofessionals, I think that’s why more people are getting on board now.”

Walker said that Option 9 is here to stay, but that the program would be evaluated as it becomes more widespread to see if it’s working or if tweaks need to be made.

He said that he learned from the pandemic that people are learning in different ways now, and that this option allows colleges to structure a program around different schedules and needs.

“Teachers still have to pass the Praxis and then still become a full teacher before they can teach, so it’s not watering anything down,” Walker said. “It’s just giving every one of the teacher educators kind of a different path to take to try to get their education degree.”