As state education officials search for ways to solve Colorado's teacher shortage, simply raising awareness of the problem already seems to be helping, according to those involved in training future teachers.
The College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs recorded a 33 percent increase in student credit hours this fall semester over the fall of 2016, said Valerie Conley Martin, dean of the college.
"It was significant," she said. "We saw proportionately more than any other school or college on our campus, which was amazing."
Altogether, 329 undergraduate students are enrolled this semester in education programs, up from 35 students in 2013.
The college also has 469 students enrolled in graduate education programs this semester.
Martin attributes much of the growth to two new inclusive bachelor's degrees in early childhood and elementary education, which provide a more rounded background and include training in special education and teaching English as a second language.
Special education, math, science and foreign languages are among the hardest hit subjects, in terms of the teacher shortage, which is estimated to be around 3,000 teachers annually statewide.
The two-year alternative teacher preparation program that the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services provides in partnership with UCCS also is experiencing heightened interest, said program director Lou Valdez.
"It's grown every year," he said.
The program has 124 teachers obtaining licensure, he said, and another 12 lined up to start in January.
"It's a record - our biggest class ever since the program started in 2000," said Valdez.
Of those, 72 are in their first year of studies.
Students are working as teachers in 13 school districts and 11 charter schools from Pueblo and Canon City to Simla and Calhan to Monument and Parker. They can study elementary, secondary or special education, in every content area.
"Our teachers typically are career-changers, with an average age of 40," Valdez said, adding that the on-the-job training format has helped generate interest.
"We have 14 field coaches who provide individual support and 22 instructors that teach classes," Valdez said. "The shortage is real, and we seem to be providing a service that school districts need."
Enrollment stabilizing statewide
The local trend is mirroring what's happening in other communities.
After a seven-year decline in the number of students completing educator preparation programs statewide, the 2016-17 academic year realized an 8 percent increase, according to a newly released 2017 Educator Preparation Report.
And declines in enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs seem to be stabilizing, with just a 1 percent variance over the past three years, according to the report.
As instructed under a bill Gov. John Hickenlooper signed in May, state education officials presented to legislators on Dec. 1 a new report on the teacher shortage and a preliminary plan to address the issue.
The recommendations were culled largely from a series of public town hall meetings the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education held across the state over the summer, including one in Colorado Springs.
Among the 30 strategies listed are improving base pay - perhaps by setting a statewide minimum salary linked to the cost of living - elevating the perception of the profession, simplifying job preparation, instituting a loan forgiveness program for teachers in rural districts, offering housing incentives and nurturing a "grow your own" program to keep teachers in the towns they grew up in.
Critics say finding the money to fund some of the initiatives could be difficult. But Hickenlooper is floating the idea of using $10 million in marijuana tax proceeds to help hire and retain teachers in his proposed 2018-2019 state budget, released last month.
Though schools can't help with funding, they can assist in other ways.
"The institutions of higher education are key partners in the strategies if we're going to successfully meet these goals," Martin said. "We can help with perception and teacher preparation."
For the second year, UCCS held a video contest for students on why they want to become a teacher and will use it in promoting the school's teacher preparation programs.
The first place winner was Shelly Blanchard, a 22-year-old from Denver who will graduate from UCCS in May with a bachelor's degree in inclusive elementary education.
"I love working with kids and making a difference in their lives and encouraging them to be the best learners they can be and change the world for the better," she said.
She's aware of teacher shortage. With proposed incentives, Blanchard says the time is right to become a teacher.
"It's a great opportunity for a lot of new teachers to come on board and make a difference," she said. "There are so many jobs available. I don't see the shortage lasting a long time."
The plan has drawn criticism from the state's largest teacher association.
The Colorado Education Association said in a statement that its 36,000 members are concerned that the "importance of the educator voice" is missing from the plan.
Specifically, there are not enough "concrete details" regarding strengthening the learning and working conditions to "ensure educators are supported and valued."
Regarding licensure, the organization said lowering the bar is not the best way to address the shortage.
"We must continue to press for rigorous performance assessments that candidates must pass to teach," the statement said. "We need teachers well-versed in content and classroom management."
Rural shortages most severe
Martin said she's encouraged by the movement surrounding the issue.
"When you put all of the pieces together, you really do start to see a commitment from policymakers to addressing the needs for more teachers in the state of Colorado," she said. "It's a call to action for higher education and a positive step forward."
As co-chair of the Colorado Council of Deans of Education, Martin said colleges and universities can improve the situation by demonstrating how educator preparation programs are beneficial.
"It's important we help our executive leadership understand the role that education preparation plays in the mission of the institution where we are housed," she said. "That's going to impact how much resources they devote and how much emphasis they place on the programs."
Having quality teachers is necessary for the workforce and the community as a whole, she said.
Addressing community needs, such as through the new multi-credentialed programs UCCS offers, will help fill the jobs, particularly in rural districts, which have the most severe shortages, Martin said.
Another example: a pilot program in UCCS' alternative licensure program is using technology to grade classroom performance.
"We're using video observation and providing faculty feedback without having to go to the campus," Martin said.
"There's a lot of talk about the need for more flexible pathways. We have a history of being reflective of and responsive to the school districts' needs."
State lawmakers will consider the plan's recommendations when they returned to the Capitol next month.