In her second grade classroom at Madrona Elementary School in SeaTac, Fatima Nuñez Ardon often tells her students stories about everyday people realizing their dreams. One day, for example, she talked about Salvadoran American NASA astronaut Francisco Rubio and his journey to the International Space Station. 

Another day, she told them her own life story — how she, an El Salvadoran immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in middle school speaking very little English, came to be a teacher. 

Nuñez Ardon took an unusual path to the classroom: She earned her teaching degree through evening classes at a community college while living at home and raising her four children. 

Community college-based teaching programs like this are rare, but growing. They can dramatically cut the cost and raise the convenience of earning a teaching degree, while making a job in education accessible to more people.

In Washington, nine community colleges have begun offering education degrees in the last decade. Nationally, Community College Baccalaureate Association data indicates six other states offer baccalaureate degrees related to K-12 education.

The expansion comes at a good time: Teacher shortages have worsened in the past decade, as fewer undergraduates enter teacher training programs. A report in March from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education showed that the number of people completing a teacher education program declined by almost a third between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years. And many educators fear the pandemic worsened the crisis.

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All of Washington’s teaching baccalaureate programs have received approval from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to launch since 2016. 

And they’re attracting students like Nuñez Ardon, who became certified to run a K-8 classroom in June, at the age of 36. It’s likely she wouldn’t have pursued a classroom career otherwise. 

Growing new educator programs

Teacher shortages predate the pandemic. For years, the number of people graduating from teacher education programs has fallen short of teacher demand. In 2018, 57,000 fewer students nationwide earned education degrees than in 2011. A 2021 report from the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board found that schools were forced to lean on individuals who had not completed certification requirements to fill the gaps, and waivers had risen to 8,080 in the 2019-20 school year, a spike from fewer than 2,800 a decade prior. 

The state has in recent years encouraged “grow your own” programs, or alternative pathways to classroom certification that attract local talent. Some are run by districts, while others are college or university efforts. They’re seen both as a way to buffer the teacher shortage and to grow a workforce more representative of the student body. Statewide, 50% of Washington students are people of color, while 87% of classroom teachers are white. 

The PESB report indicates that community college baccalaureates in education are already helping ease the teacher shortage.

Learn and teach

“It’s a highly rigorous program,” said Elizabeth Paulino, who runs Yakima Valley College’s teacher education baccalaureate program. 

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The college’s model is much like those throughout the rest of the state. Teacher candidates come in with an associate degree and spend two years in classes, primarily in the evenings. Then, weeks before the second and final year of the program begins, candidates begin a residency at a partner school. 

Some research suggests this yearlong immersion helps with retention, since graduates know what they’re getting into, Paulino said. “What better way of teaching them about their teaching profession than to immerse them fully?”

Resident teachers are assigned mentors who come recommended by their principal or superintendent and have at least three years of classroom experience, she said. 

While juggling their work and school load, teacher candidates are also taking a series of tests required by the state for certification. “By the time they finish their residency, they have fulfilled all of their requirements not only of the program, but also of the state.”

Many Washington colleges offer extra endorsement programs for those interested. Teachers in Yakima, where a significant part of the population speaks only Spanish, can earn an English Language Learner endorsement. Highline offers ELL and special education endorsements — two areas of specialty in which teacher shortages have been acute. 

Demand from local schools

There has been pushback against community college baccalaureates in education in Washington and nationally, as universities with teacher education programs grapple with their yearslong decline in enrollment, said Debra Bragg, the founder and former director of the University of Washington’s Community College Research Initiatives group. 

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Community colleges argue that they’re a good place for teacher training because they’re open access — there is no selective admissions process to get in — and that they “are attracting students that the universities probably are not attracting and probably won’t attract,” she said.

Nuñez Ardon said this was the case for her. She was unable to move because of her growing family, and the nearby University of Washington doesn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in teacher education. The cost was another important factor. Tuition and fees for one year at Western Washington University — one of the nearest public four-year universities — come to more than $10,700; when housing, meals and supplies are factored in, the yearly cost is about $30,000. The program Nuñez Ardon attended at Highline College costs roughly $7,100 a year, allowed her to live at home and accommodated her work schedule. 

Because of their local and open-access qualities, community colleges could help fill the teacher supply gap, said Bragg. What’s more, “If it’s important for us to prepare teachers who look like students in their community, representing that diversity of the community, then it might make sense to look at what the community colleges are doing.”

At Pierce College, what propelled the program were paraprofessionals working in local school districts and enrolling in the early childhood education program with the hope of becoming certified teachers. But that associate degree program didn’t lead to teacher certification. 

When the college began considering an elementary education baccalaureate program to meet community interest, there was some pushback from Central Washington University, which is well-known for its teacher education program and shares a sub-campus with Pierce College. 

But leaders from the two colleges’ education departments came to realize that the college and university programs would serve different demographics, said Leesa Thomas, Pierce’s director of education programs. The result was a strengthened relationship between the two.

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Schools are calling

Many of Washington’s other education baccalaureates grew in response to demand from local schools. 

Connie Smejkal, Centralia College’s dean of teacher education, said area superintendents were calling frequently to say they were struggling to hire teachers. It also was tough to retain them because they recruited anyone who applied, “rather than picking really high-quality candidates. Their need was extraordinary.” 

In fall of 2016, Centralia and Grays Harbor colleges launched a teacher education baccalaureate together, anticipating that neither would have enough students to run a full program on their own. Each planned to have an initial cohort of 12 teacher candidates. But Smejkal said student interest in the program was as hot as school demand: There were more than 80 applicants to Centralia alone for the first cohort. The school admitted 52 of them the first year. 

“We realized how thirsty the community was to become teachers,” she said. The next year, Centralia and Grays Harbor formed their own separate programs. Each welcomed their sixth cohort this fall, and between the two schools, 175 people have completed degrees. They each report the majority of their graduates go on to teach in local classrooms. Smejkal said everyone from last year’s cohort who was interested in classroom teaching had signed a contract with a school before graduating. 

Peter Finch, superintendent of West Valley School District in Yakima, said he’s experienced no shortage of general education teachers since the launch of Yakima Valley College’s program. 

He also said the teachers hired from the local program have so far been predominantly Latino, and half had been bilingual Spanish-English speakers, better matching the district’s student demographic and support needs. Some new hires are now pursuing special education endorsements, which will eventually help to fill another gap. 

Meanwhile, Nuñez Ardon spends her days at Madrona Elementary as a teacher and role model to young students she sees herself in — and in whom she hopes to inspire the same curiosity and passion for learning.

Editor’s note: This story is one in an occasional series about tackling teacher shortages and is part of an eight-newsroom collaboration among The Seattle Times, AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno (Calif.) Bee, The Hechinger Report and The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.