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Grant Funds UTEP Efforts to Prepare, Assist Teachers

Last Updated on October 06, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published October 06, 2020

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Communications

The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education, in collaboration with several community partners, has launched the latest in a series of initiatives meant to recruit, train and retain teachers who will serve students in the Paso del Norte region.

Daisy Clary, left, and Elizabeth Calzadias, alumni of The University of Texas at El Paso and first-grade teachers at Fabens Elementary School in Fabens, Texas, will participate in a Miner Mentor program designed to affect educator effectiveness, leadership development and optimal learning environments. Photo: Ivan Garfias / Fabens Independent School District
Daisy Clary, left, and Elizabeth Calzadias, alumni of The University of Texas at El Paso and first-grade teachers at Fabens Elementary School in Fabens, Texas, will participate in a Miner Mentor program designed to affect educator effectiveness, leadership development and optimal learning environments. Photo: Ivan Garfias / Fabens Independent School District

The goals of the pilot Miner Mentor program are to support novice educators who work in three of El Paso’s rural school districts – Fabens, Tornillo and Canutillo – and build their confidence as classroom and campus leaders.

Each district selected 20-30 of their teachers from all grade levels with less than three years’ experience to be part of this program. These teachers will be assisted by mentors, a program coordinator, and three “coaches,” who are UTEP employees embedded in the districts.

Funds for this and other related projects will come from the El Paso Community Foundation (EPCF), which, along with El Paso’s Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development (CREEED), received a one-year, $1.36 million grant from the Prentice Farrar Brown & Alline Fort Brown Foundation, Bank of America, N.A. Trustee to enhance the region’s teacher preparation programs. Part of the grant will fund a Brown Foundation Fellow who will direct the mentor program. 

“All the pieces are in place,” said Clifton Tanabe, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Education. “This program is designed to impact the key areas of student learning, educator effectiveness, leadership development, and optimal learning environments.”

Representatives from the New Teacher Center, which is based in Santa Cruz, California, served as the initial trainers in late September. The center’s personnel shared different ideas, perspectives and teaching strategies with the trainees who would then move onto their campuses in October to instruct selected mentor teachers.

Elizabeth Calzadias, a first-grade teacher at Fabens Elementary School and a veteran of 12 years in the classroom, said she looked forward to the extended opportunities to learn and grow as a teacher and a mentor. She said she plans to share her experience and newfound knowledge with Daisy Clary, a first-year teacher.  

“I would hope to provide valuable information and resources that will help her to have a successful and stress-free year,” said Calzadias, who earned her bachelor’s degree in education from UTEP in 2008.

Clary said that she looked forward to Calzadias’ insights that could help with class management, instructional skills and anything else that would make her a better educator. The novice teacher received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from UTEP in 2019.

The Education Commission of the States reported in 2019 that districts across the country faced severe teacher shortages. The most affected districts were in rural, low-income communities that serve predominantly minority students. The likeliest teacher candidates to leave their jobs taught math, science, special education and bilingual education.

A report from the National Center for Education Statistics stated that the nation had about 3.7 million full- and part-time Pre-K-12 teachers in public schools in 2020. The national average is 8% attrition annually and only a third of that is due to retirement.

Experts said some of the bigger reasons new teachers leave their jobs are that they are not prepared well enough, particularly through alternative certification programs, and, once in the classroom, are not supported by mentors and administrators.

Veronica Vijil, Ed.D., superintendent of the Fabens Independent School District (FISD), said the biggest issues some of her district teachers face are long commutes and limited traditional training for instructors in its Cotton Valley Early College High School.

The district serves Fabens, an agricultural community of more than 8,000, according to the 2010 Census. The community is located 30 miles east of Downtown El Paso and two miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. FISD serves more than 2,000 students from grades Pre-K-12.

Vijil, who earned her bachelor’s degree in secondary education from UTEP in 1986, said that most recently, teachers from secondary English language arts and all levels of special education are the ones most likely to leave her district.

The superintendent also noted how her early college program has instructors who can teach college-level courses, but lack a teaching degree and/or a credential. She said the Texas Education Agency allows this because FISD is a “District of Innovation,” a state designation that allows districts to exempt themselves from portions of the Texas Education Code. She said that the district encourages teachers hired through the “innovation” process to earn their certification. She also lauded CREEED for the grants it has offered to those teachers to enroll in an alternative certification program.

“Without the traditional training and process for obtaining a teaching degree and certification, some of the teachers we hire lack the background, foundation, experience, and support that is needed when they step into a high school setting,” Vijil said.

The superintendent said she was thrilled to work with UTEP and the other partners and hoped that this mentor-teacher program would help address some of her teachers’ concerns.

“New teachers will have the benefit of frequent visits and feedback by a mentor,” said Vijil, who added that mentors typically are classroom teachers with limited opportunities to spend quality classroom time with their mentees. “The new teachers will have timely feedback and will be provided with multiple opportunities to enhance their craft.”

Tanabe, the UTEP dean, said organizers hope to develop sustainable strategies with their district partners that will help the districts after the one-year program ends. He added that the collaborators plan to assess and evaluate the program sometime early in the spring 2021 semester.

Another portion of the Brown Foundation grant will go to enhance the Miner Teacher Residency Program, which launched in August 2019 with the help of CREEED, the EPCF and Workforce Solutions Borderplex. The Miner Teacher Residency Program has grown to 50 student teachers assigned to two elementary and one middle school that represent the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro independent school districts. A third site coordinator was hired and assigned to the Ysleta district campus. 

Tanabe said organizers plan to expand the program to include a high school and eventually place 200 student teachers into the residency program.

Another of the collaborators’ projects to be funded with this grant will be instructional modules that will be offered to high schools to create pathways for students who want to become Pre-K-12 teachers. The plan is to introduce them as part of advanced placement courses or at early college high schools.

“We realize that these are experiments,” Tanabe said. “We’re stretching our wings, but we want folks to know that we are serious about building a sustainable pipeline” for teachers in El Paso.

He praised CREEED and the EPCF for their willingness to use the grant to work with UTEP and many of the region’s school districts to reimagine the best ways to recruit, prepare and retain elementary and secondary teachers so they can best serve their students.

Stephanie Otero, EPCF vice president of operations, acknowledged that it takes a unique and committed person to become a teacher.

“If we can find those individuals and support them as they enter the profession, we will see student attainment, school performance and teacher retention all rise,” Otero said.

Amy O’Rourke, CREEED’s director of Choose to Excel, said the group’s goal is to see that 100% of teachers hired in the El Paso region come from sustainable, high-quality teacher preparation programs.

“As one of the few organizations in the region focused solely on educational attainment, CREEED has long recognized what a difference highly effective teachers can make,” O’Rourke said.