As Nevada shortage worsens, where will the new teachers come from?
Twenty years ago, Lushawn Threats started an elementary education program at the College of Southern Nevada — the first step in the Cheyenne High School graduate’s lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.
But within a year, she started to lose her vision.
“I was legally blind for about five years,” Threats said. “And in that time, I kind of fell away from school. Getting my degree seemed like it wasn't ever going to happen, honestly.”
But Threats didn’t fall away from her dream, and though she couldn’t teach, she could fill a support role. In 2014, she came back to the Clark County School District (CCSD) as a special education aide, where she still works today.
“I still love it,” Threats said.
Now, under a new UNLV program, Threats may finally get the chance to be a teacher.
That program, aimed at a pool of support staff at CCSD who have a two-year degree or some college already, provides an expedited pathway that could move them from their support roles to fully licensed teacher positions in only one year.
But the chance for Threats and dozens of others looking to become teachers comes amid new stresses for a school district facing a historically severe teacher shortage, compounded by two years of COVID chaos.
As of Feb. 23, the number of licensed teacher vacancies in Clark County was 1,270 — up from 777 last August and more than double the pre-pandemic average of roughly 530. Some of those vacancies represent teachers who have put in their resignations for next year or new positions added ahead of an expected increase in enrollment.
As the shortage persists, the role of teacher education programs — from traditional undergraduate degrees to specialty courses such as the one offered by UNLV — has come under the spotlight.
Still, the vacancies present an immediate problem: Where will the new teachers come from?
Old problems, new approaches
At UNLV, one answer has come by fast-tracking employees who are already deeply familiar with CCSD classrooms most desperately in need of teachers — support staff.
Formally known as the “Paraprofessional Pathways Project,” the program allows support staff with at least an associate’s degree or 60 college credits to enter an intensive, one-year crash course that functionally completes their college-level training.
Created in the summer of 2021 with seed funding from state grants, the program will graduate its first cohort of 36 students this summer, with another cohort of 69 due to graduate at the end of the year.
Kenneth Varner, one of the program’s faculty leads, said the PPP program is already funded through the next two years thanks to roughly $6.1 million in state grant money, which will support another 50 students each year. He said that number could double should CCSD find and contribute additional funds.
Varner said the program was not necessarily born from the staffing crisis wrought by the pandemic, but instead pointed to the broader forces — COVID included — that have created a “massive capacity need” for new teachers in Clark County schools.
And though the program is completely free for students, Varner said that has not been a driver for enrollment.
“None of the people are here just because it's free, or that we found a pathway to make it free,” Varner said. “They're here because this is what they want to do.”
For those working through the program now, the classes — though intense — have been fulfilling.
Maria Romero spent more than seven years working as a Spanish-speaking specialist in Clark County high schools before moving to a nonprofit, where she supervises multiple programs.
Now more than halfway through the program, Romero said she was inspired by the teachers who helped her son, who is on the autism spectrum.
“He's now going to graduate high school,” Romero said. “I want to be like those teachers, to support families like they supported me when I was struggling with my son.”
Romero was inspired to go back to college, but found that her community college accounting degree from Mexico counted only as a high school diploma. Undeterred, she enrolled at CSN, where she eventually received her associate’s degree.
Though the rest of her education was delayed by COVID, the PPP, she said, presented an opportunity.
“I don't have the degree, but I consider myself a teacher,” Romero said. “All the other students in this program are teaching already … we just needed that support to actually get our degree.”
Still, students in the program, including Romero, say the pace of instruction was no walk in the park. The program functionally compresses two years of classroom learning into a single year’s program, with whole courses bundled into a matter of weeks, rather than months.
“You're learning every hour of your day, you're busy, you're doing something productive, and learning,” Romero said. “I can’t wait for the summer, to be able to say, ‘I'm done, I completed this.’”
Where are the new teachers?
The traditional pipeline for public school teachers — university undergraduate courses — has seen enrollment fluctuate throughout the pandemic.
Enrollment data from Nevada’s four-year institutions — UNR, UNLV and Nevada State College (NSC) — in addition to large programs in neighboring states, including Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and Brigham Young University in Utah, show student populations roughly remaining steady or declining slightly at education colleges.
Often, enrollment trends within colleges followed enrollment trends at institutions more broadly. At UNR, where overall enrollment shrank 4.4 percent between its peak in 2016 and 2021, undergraduate enrollment within the College of Education and Human Development fell by 12.5 percent over that same time frame, dropping from 1,136 to 994.
At the much smaller and much newer NSC, though — where total enrollment has nearly doubled in the same time period — the education program has risen more modestly. It was up just 21 percent, from 572 undergraduates to 692.
Administrators say traditional pipelines set up to educate, train and prepare new teachers are not necessarily delivering drastically fewer teachers than in pre-COVID years.
Still, some administrators pointed to an unaddressed need to expand access to educational training and mentorship programs, diversifying the pool of potential future teachers.
“We know people want to be educators,” said Danica Hays, dean of the UNLV College of Education. “A lot of times, it's about the financial barriers, or not having enough information to access higher education in general.”
Hays said those barriers often disproportionately affect people of color generally, and Donald Easton-Brooks, the Dean of UNR’s College of Education and Human Development, said plainly that the existing institutions “could do much better.”
“We need to really revisit our educational system and how we prepare teachers,” Easton-Brooks said. “Public schools are different than they've been over the last 10 years. There's growing diversity in our schools, from a student lens. There's a lot of research that talks about culturally relevant teaching, culture relevant practice and how to engage with highly diverse populations — I don't know if that's really changed our curriculum.”
For instance, he pointed to the state requirement that teachers take a course in diversity and equity “in hopes that teachers are going to get what they need.”
“That’s not enough,” he said. “One class does not make you more knowledgeable in that. In the same breath, we don’t say, ‘take one math class and you’ve got it.’”
Easton-Brooks pointed to research on positive correlations between the cultural responsiveness of a teacher — how much they can identify with and understand their students, regardless of background — and said culturally responsive teachers are “better able” to engage and interact with students generally.
A question of retention
Experts say the issue of a teacher shortage persists in large part because of severe and ongoing issues with teacher retention.
“The job, at that time during COVID, was a very tough job. And for those who are new teachers, it might have been, ‘I can't do this, this is too tough,’” Easton-Brooks said. “This is your first experience of teaching, and this is how you do it? For those seasoned teachers, it might have just been that they've met the breaking point, and this is just, ‘enough is enough.’”
Easton-Brooks said many exiting the profession have pointed to a lack of ancillary supports as a key driver in their departing the classroom, but added that the issue is likely rooted more deeply than those supports.
“I think it has something to do with [whether] teachers are strongly prepared,” he said. “Does it help them when challenging things come up? Can they endure those things?”
Even as COVID has waned and the school experience has inched back toward “normal,” early data on teachers’ job satisfaction has raised new concerns. A National Education Association survey found that the number of teachers thinking of leaving the job nationwide surged from 37 percent last August to 55 percent last month.
It is unclear how many of those teachers may ultimately end up leaving, but regardless, administrators said, the reasons these teachers might leave or have already left must drive efforts to retain new teachers entering the field.
Hays said that one silver lining of the pandemic is that it has sharpened the conversation around the issue of retention. “Proactive solutions,” including mentorship programs, or more precise programs, such as UNLV’s paraprofessional program, could fill gaps that went untouched pre-pandemic, she added.
Institutional barriers and the money problem
As Nevada universities continue to graduate new potential teachers into the system, some students within the existing pipeline have raised concerns over what they call unique institutional barriers. Student teaching requirements, specifically, have become a source of concern as they often require teachers-in-training to forgo a salary during their training period.
“These are folks who are working full time and supporting families,” Varner, with the PPP program, said.
Institutions are already eyeing proposed fixes.
UNR, for instance, has pitched a teacher pathway program called “Pups to Pack,” which would create a pipeline for high school students looking to get an education degree and provide additional supports, including a dual credit course in high school, targeted scholarships once in college and a paid salary for the student teaching period.
One UNR student, Robert Resnik, told the Board of Regents during a meeting Friday that “by keeping the pathway to teaching difficult to access, it's only going to scare away more potential teachers for the state of Nevada.”
“I frequently hear from my peers about their frustration with the current program layout, how they will be forced to take out loans to cover their living costs so that they won't have the time to work another job during the student teaching,” Resnik said during public comment. “I've even heard from a number of them that they're looking at moving to other states so that they can be paid for their student teaching.”
But the funding of these programs may hinge on the expansion of higher education budgets in Carson City, something that hasn’t happened since before the Great Recession. And on the higher education system’s long wish list — from the expansion of buildings and other capital projects to the compensation of faculty to the increased payment of graduate teaching assistants — it is unclear where these programs may fall on the funding priority list.
It’s also unclear how or to what extent lawmakers in 2023 may tweak funding for teachers.
“Should we pay our teachers more? Absolutely,” Easton-Brooks said. “Should they be among some of the highest paying careers at civic service? Absolutely. Is that a reason why teachers leave the field or decide not to go into the field? No.”
Teachers, Easton-Brooks said, know what they are getting into. But he sharply criticized a lack of funding for training and support programs that could help make sure teachers are deeply equipped for the job.
“We [Nevada] want to buy curriculums rather than teaching teachers, rather than giving teachers training on how to develop curriculums that are valuable,” Easton-Brooks said. “We want quick fixes.”