A new report highlights a small program in Highline Public Schools that’s seen as a national model for increasing the number of bilingual teachers.
After five years of working at Bailey Gatzert Elementary in Seattle, Jonathan Ruiz Velasco realized he might want to become a teacher.
He had been working as a bilingual instructional aide at the Central District school, helping students who were learning English. He also translated, when needed, for their families. And while he knew he loved working with children, he had some hesitation about becoming a teacher.
“I was a little skeptical at first because I heard the statistics,” Ruiz Velasco said. “After five years, teachers burn out. And I didn’t necessarily want to go back to school, spend thousands of dollars and realize this isn’t what I wanted to do.”
So, after four more years of considering his options — and with some prodding from teachers at Gatzert — Ruiz Velasco last year signed up for a new program offered by neighboring Highline Public Schools, where bilingual paraeducators can tap state-funded scholarships to help them earn teaching certificates.
It’s a small program, with an inaugural class of just 17. But it’s getting a lot of attention as a creative solution when it comes to teacher shortages.
In Washington state, the governor’s office has promoted it. The online publication Slate also featured Highline’s program in June.
And on Wednesday, a national think tank, the New America Foundation, released a new report that provides districts and states with a blueprint they can use to copy Highline’s program.
“I was absolutely blown away by the scope and depth of the program,” said the Amaya Garcia, the report’s author.
The program isn’t cheap — participants can get scholarships of up to $8,000 per year, on top of their regular salary — and Garcia acknowledged that it might be hard for districts to sustain such costs.
But she think it’s worthwhile because it’s a good way to fill the growing need for bilingual teachers. That may be especially important in a district like Highline, which has a goal of all graduates leaving high school speaking at least two languages.
“Washington really is a leader in this type of work,” Garcia said. “It’s very proactive in its approach to the (teacher) shortage and opening as many routes to the profession as possible.”
In 2015, the state Legislature encouraged school districts and universities to work together to create new pathways to teacher certification, and provided competitive grants to help.
Highline Public Schools teamed up with the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University and started the first batch of classes in the summer of 2016.
Ruiz Velasco and the other teachers-to-be work full-time as paraeducators in a Highline school while taking night and weekend classes, working toward a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. Working with a mentor teacher, they also take on some classroom duties to practice what they’ve learned.
The future teachers also agree to work in a public school once they complete the program, or they must repay the scholarships.
“This is not for the fainthearted,” said Ruiz Velasco. “It’s a big commitment and a lot of work.”
Ruiz Velasco’s wife also is enrolled — and he said there’s no way they could have considered the program without the scholarships it offers.
And despite the late nights and loss of their weekends, Ruiz Velasco said he looked forward to returning the favor that he received from the Latino teachers who helped him cherish his own language as a Spanish-speaking student in Seattle schools.
“We had this cultural connection that was very unique,” he said. “They encouraged me to keep my language.
“Many students, if they don’t get that reinforcement they eventually lose their second language or at times their first language,” Ruiz Velasco added. “Now I get to pass on the baton and encourage my students to understand their cultural background is so rich.”