Amid Louisiana’s chronic teacher shortage, nearly 600 paraprofessionals statewide are paying $75 per month to learn to be teachers while also holding a full-time classroom job.
Paraprofessionals are like teacher assistants but they are generally paid less than half of what teachers make.
A nonprofit school called Reach University allows candidates to take online classes in the evening two or three times per week and, in four years or less, emerge with a bachelor’s degree that qualifies them to become full-time teachers.
“If four years from now we have 600 additional teachers in the field that is definitely going to make a dent in the staffing challenge,” said Em Cooper, deputy assistant superintendent for the state Department of Education.
Cooper said 37% of those enrolled are people of color, another aim of the program.
The Livingston Parish School District has 34 teacher candidates pursuing degrees, tops in the state.
Other leaders include the Tangipahoa, Lafayette and St. Landry parishes school systems.
A total of 53 school districts are involved, and the New Orleans area has 85 paraprofessionals and other educators enrolled.
Finding teachers is one of the biggest challenges in public schools, both in Louisiana and nationally.
The ranks of aspiring teachers in Louisiana is down 30% and the number of retirees shot up 25% between 2020 and 2021.
What used to be problems finding math and science teachers now applies across the board, veteran educators say.
The little-known Reach University program, which is about two years old, has the blessing of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Regents.
The first graduates are set to finish next spring, which means the jury is out on whether these teachers will match the skills of those from LSU, Southeastern Louisiana University and other traditional programs.
The California-based school only offers similar programs in Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.
Kimberly Eckert, who was the 2018 state teacher of the year, serves as dean of undergraduate studies for Reach University and is confident its graduates will stand out.
“This isn’t that different from a brick-and-mortar institution where students have classes once or twice a week, then work independently,” Eckert said in an email.
“Our candidates are serving students real-time,” she added.
“They are already living in their communities, know the families and know the kids.”
Janae Montgomery, 24, is set to become one of the first graduates of the Reach University training when she finishes in May.
Montgomery is a special education paraprofessional at Brusly High School who earlier had planned to attend LSU or another school after two years at Baton Rouge Community College.
The ability to keep her regular job while attending night classes had lots of appeal, and her full-time job counts as her student teaching.
“When I first heard about it I was like ‘Wait, something has to be off.’ But what you see is what you get.”
Montgomery, like others enrolled in the program, has to fill out an application for federal financial aid called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Most candidates qualify for federal Pell grants of up to $6,500 per year for low-income students.
Most will also finish without any debt.
School districts say Reach represents a partial lifeline as officials scramble to fill classrooms.
“With the teacher shortage across the state it is so important that we do everything we possibly can to recruit employees,” said Jody Purvis, assistant superintendent for public schools in Livingston Parish.
The district assigns a mentor to work with the teacher candidate.
Purvis said the districts know its candidates are “quality employees” with the chance to go from paraprofessionals making $20,000 per year to starting teachers being paid $47,000 per year.
“It is a pathway to earning a degree,” he said. ‘It is not a shortcut. They are earning a bachelor’s degree.”
Reach is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
The operation will face the same scrutiny as traditional schools, including the state’s quality rating system.
Candidates also have to take the same licensing exams as other aspiring teachers.
The state Department of Education has encouraged local school districts to consider the program.
Cooper said state officials have received positive feedback from local educators as they work to build their teacher workforce.
“A lot of these paraprofessionals want to be a teacher but cannot resign from their job to go into the classroom,” she said.
“They (districts) really wanted to build their population and were struggling to remove barriers for paraprofessionals to do this.”
Montgomery was able to apply 30 credit hours from BRCC to her teacher training, which means she can finish in three years.
She said she hopes to earn dual certification in special education and high school math.
Eckert, who still teaches two hours per day at Brusly High School, said she has coached teachers for 10 years and never had one leave the profession.
“I’ve come to learn that what we’re teaching and how we’re supporting matters more in teaching effectiveness than the mode or public opinion of the where,” she said.