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P-TEACH paves the way for a new generation of educators

Pathways to Teaching puts SVVSD students on an early track to become educators.
P-TEACH graduate Deejha Blash-Lopez and Mountain View Elementary kindergarten teacher Lauren Vargas at work in Vargas' classroom. (Photo by Caroline Grundy / Courtesy of St. Vrain Valley School District)

Pathways to Teaching, or P-TEACH, is paving the way for a new generation of educators in the St. Vrain Valley School District.

Open to students and paraprofessionals in the district, P-TEACH provides college credit through University of Colorado-Denver, or CU Denver, and Front Range Community College, concurrent with their high school track in SVVSD. The program focuses on early childhood education experience, as well as bilingual teaching, special education and STEM pathways. 

Starting in 2017, P-TEACH Coordinator and Instructor Wendy Howerstein said early recruitment was a struggle as the district coordinated with high school counselors and education staff to bring in interested students. The first semester it was offered, Howerstein said there were nearly 30 students participating. 

Howerstein, who holds dual Masters degrees in human development as well as multicultural and bilingual education, and was a kindergarten and early education teacher in SVVSD for more than 20 years. Her experiences in education, as well as being a first-generation Puerto Rican-American, assisted her as she took up the challenge of heading up the new program.

Recruiting first-generation students provides an opportunity to students who otherwise might not attend college, Howerstein explained. She visited various Latinx clubs at the high schools, sitting with students during meetings or at lunch to gauge interest and generate excitement for the program.

After the first couple semesters of coursework, Howerstein saw the need for P-TEACH students to get field experience and developed an internship course through the Innovation Center. Though it’s the one course in the P-TEACH program that doesn’t offer a college credit, Howerstein felt it was a vital part of the path to new teachers.

“You can take all the coursework you want, if you walk into a classroom and all the kids talking at the same time is going to push you over the edge, teaching isn’t for you,” Howerstein said.

To achieve that, Howerstein and her colleagues reached out to principals and teachers in elementary schools throughout the district. Howerstein wanted to be sure the teachers would have the time to mentor the aspiring educators. 

Once it was added to the course list, Howerstein saw the proverbial lights go on for the students as they made connections with younger students and mentor teachers. Suddenly, she explained, the high school students felt like they had a better grasp on their own education and their teachers’ methods. According to Howerstein, many students reached out to teachers who had an impact on their own education to be a mentor.

“That’s the key — the students feel like the magician is pulling back the curtain for them to see — like you’ve got this secret ticket to find out all the things happening behind the scenes. Part of the magic is that it's seamless and as a student you don’t realize it,” Howerstein said. “And so they begin to see teaching as this incredibly magical, honorable thing you can do with your life that isn’t just a job, but a career you can feel proud of.”

The feedback that Howerstein received from teachers and principals was overwhelmingly positive, she said. The excitement of the students carried over to the mentor teachers, reinforcing and enhancing their own practice as they guided this next generation of educators. The teachers gain an opportunity to reexamine their teaching methods and share in the enthusiasm of the interns and young students in the classroom.

“It fans their flame for teaching and makes them realize how important their job is,” Howerstein said. “When someone else comes in and asks you questions, you realize how many layers of knowledge you have and you value yourself more.”

Howerstein had to lobby teachers to take on a mentee student early in the program, but now, however, P-TEACH receives requests asking if there are any available candidates for coming semesters.

Jennifer Piccone, principal at Mountain View Elementary, wrote to P-TEACH leadership admiring  the professionalism, competency and tenacity that P-TEACH graduate and intern Deejha Blash-Lopez displayed while working in the kindergarten classroom — from taking initiative in small group instruction to activity development — particularly while parents observed virtually.

“It could be nerve-racking enough to take this on with five-year-olds, but to do so with an audience of parents is incredible,” Piccone said.

P-TEACH also helps break down social barriers with high school students, Howerstein said, encouraging them to share their experiences within a cohort composed of students of different backgrounds and home schools. Many of the students are first-generation Latinx, Howerstein explained, though there are plenty of Anglo kids in the program. 

One of the courses, focused on language, power and identity, explores creating a diverse classroom that welcomes students and families that didn’t learn English as their first language. Having students in the program who grew up with English as a second language partnered with Anglo students helps foster a shared experience and examine the intention and power of language, Howerstein explained.

Olivia Nunez, an 11th Grade student taking both the introductory and language classes, expressed her gratitude to Howenstein and the P-TEACH program.

“I brought my mom over to the Innovation Center … because I wanted her to see where I’m taking these classes,” Nunez said. “These mean so much to me. These are the only classes I care about and where I feel I want to be.”

Howerstein recognized the difficulties first-generation students face, particularly with familial obligations and finding work to help support their families at home. Howerstein heard from students struggling to leave home or attend college because their families relied on them for translation or to pay rent. To help students stay in the program and still meet their financial needs, P-TEACH students can work in SVVSD Community Schools childcare program before and after school.

“Community Schools get kids who actually care and our students get more experience working with kids,” Howerstein explained. “We need to give them a job and pay them

P-TEACH also collaborates with CU Denver with the NxtGen program, led by Nicole Rudman on the SVVSD side. NxtGEN is a teacher residency program for undergraduates, providing work experience in education to first-generation students in SVVSD and surrounding school districts while they work on their degree.

SVVSD is continually working to develop and enhance the P-TEACH program under the guidance of Professional Development Coordinator David Baker, assistant superintendent of Priority Programs and Academic Support Diane Lauer and Rudman, Howerstein said. One of the issues P-TEACH is still working on is how to provide financial support for program participants entering into student teaching, a portion of the curriculum that is commonly unpaid, she explained.

The first cohort of P-TEACH students, like Blash-Lopez, have already found work in classrooms and community schools throughout SVVSD, Howenstein said, sharing their love of education with another generation.