PLEDGE program aims to ease shortage of teachers, boost teacher diversity

Laurie Elish-Piper
Laurie Elish-Piper

Illinois schools, like schools nationwide, desperately need more teachers – as well as more teachers who look like their students – to serve in growingly diverse classrooms.

According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, nearly 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Within the Land of Lincoln, a 2019 statewide survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS) stated that 85% of school districts identify teacher shortages as a problem, climbing 7 points from 78% in 2018.

The report also found that 89% of central Illinois districts and 92% of southern Illinois districts struggled to find qualified candidates.

IARRS President Mark Klaisner doseesn’t sound optimistic, according to an Aug. 30, 2020, story by the Center Square news service: “A year ago, we found 4,200 unfilled positions in teachers, para-pros and administrators,” Klaisner was quoted, “and if that number was 4,200 last year, this year I only anticipate it being worse.”

Laurie Elish-Piper is fighting back.

Elish-Piper, dean of the Northern Illinois University College of Education, is launching and leading several innovative and impactful programs to not only put teachers in the classrooms but to supply urban, suburban and rural school districts with a plentiful, well-prepared and diverse educational workforce at all levels.

PLEDGE (Partnering to Lead and Empower District-Grown Educators):

  • acknowledges that school districts are struggling to address the scarcity of teachers and principals.
  • promises to inspire those who aspire to become teachers by empowering them to achieve their goals.
  • champions the philosophy of preparing new teachers who will stay in – or return to – their home communities to educate the generations following in their literal footsteps.

District-grown educators, Elish-Piper says, are the solution – and her motivation to explore and implement a wide-ranging collection of partnerships and initiatives that will change the story.

“We’re really trying to leave no stone unturned to help communities prepare their own teachers, Elish-Piper says. “When teachers are from the community, they’re more likely to stay in the community. They bring understanding of the community, and of the populations of students and families they will serve. They’re committed. They’re rooted there. They want to be there.”

Recruiting and hiring hometown educators also saves money for schools in induction and mentoring costs for new teachers who come to work already knowing the district, the community and the culture.

Several programs are thriving, or in process, under the PLEDGE umbrella.

  • Future teachers from the Elgin area, most of whom grew up in and graduated from U-46, can complete their first two years at Elgin Community College and their second two years as NIU Huskies – but without traveling to DeKalb: NIU brings the program to them. Fifteen Elementary Education majors, most of whom are bilingual, enrolled in the first cohort, which WILL GRADUATE ALL 15 in May 2021 after they complete their student-teaching placements in the Elgin area. Twenty more are enrolled in the second cohort, and another 20 are expected to enroll next fall. By the spring of 2023, NIU should have graduated 55 new elementary school teachers from this program, and most of them are likely to teach in U-46 or nearby District 300. The college also is launching cohorts this fall for Early Childhood Education and Special Education majors.
  • Because rural school districts struggle to recruit and hire enough teachers, and often lack the population base to adequately staff from within, the NIU College of Education is in additional discussions with administrators from Regional Offices of Education toward forming intergovernmental agreements toward a solution at a scale that meets their needs.
  • In partnership with the Illinois Principals Association (IPA), the NIU College of Education and the Rockford Public Schools this fall launched the Principal Residency Program. District 205 selected, and is paying for, 20 of its educators to earn locally delivered, two-year master’s degrees in Educational Administration. The degrees are grounded in exceptional curriculum, professional practice and strong mentoring, which includes IPA coaching. Rockford administrators expect the program will improve academic and social-emotional learning outcomes and post-secondary success in every District 205 school led by a partnership-prepared principal.
  • The NIU College of Education is currently the largest supplier of students to the Rockford Public Schools “Aspiring Teacher” initiative. Student-teachers sign contracts to work (with pay and benefits) for a full school year in Rockford, where they are paired with master teachers, are allowed to participate in professional development and then are offered jobs in District 205. NIU’s current group of eight is likely to stay in the district. The model also provides Rockford with better opportunities to evaluate prospective full-time teachers and to build deeper relationships with university teacher-prep programs.
  • The NIU College of Education is ready to renew conversations with RPS-205 toward designing and implementing a program that enables Rockford paraprofessionals to earn LBS-1 degrees in Special Education through NIU.
    • The college is also hoping to work with other districts to build a complete pipeline of educators by identifying high school students who meet the qualifications to become paraprofessionals after graduation and who, while working as paraprofessionals, earn teacher licensure degrees with two years at their local community colleges and two years at NIU.

Elish-Piper brings an advantage to this crucial initiative through already having a seat at the table of power and influence.

She is one of only 19 Member Deans working with Deans for Impact, a national organization that assembles leaders in educator preparation who want to ensure their programs are consistently preparing effective beginning teachers. Deans for Impact also provides leadership training and foster supportive, evidence-informed communities in order to improve student learning.

She also is leveraging her connections with Golden Apple of Illinois in the hopes that the organization will consider proposals to add the college’s Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education programs to its Golden Apple Accelerators initiative.

The teacher residency program identifies college seniors not currently on a teaching path, and career-changers who are college graduates, with the potential and drive to become excellent teachers in hard-to-staff content or expertise areas. Golden Apple Accelerators commit to teaching at least four years at a school-of-need in targeted communities in south, central or western Illinois.

And, with an NIU College of Education tenure of 25 years, she brings a deep foundation of institutional knowledge and a stable of talented faculty who’ve served on the front lines.

For example, NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction Associate Professor James Cohen collaborated – years before his own arrival in DeKalb – with now-retired NIU faculty members Norm Stahl and Karen Carrier of then then-called Department of Literacy Education.

James Cohen
James Cohen

Cohen directed Project ESCALERA and Project STEP to recruit and retain Hispanic individuals from their communities to become fully credentialed bilingual teachers with bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees.

He led those Title VII grants ($1.25 million and $1.5 million, respectively) from 1997 to 2001, and, at one point during those years, enrolled 270 people in the programs. It is likely that several hundred more had already graduated before his tenure as grant director, he adds.

Project STEP, meanwhile, included the creation and implementation of Future Teacher Clubs in five high schools and six community colleges.

“We are a college working to address the teacher shortage in Illinois,” Elish-Piper says. “We know how to do this.”

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