Education Enigma

Hurdles and odd restrictions hinder applicants to a new program designed to certify much-needed teachers

After earning a bachelor's degree from the UA with a stellar grade-point average a few years ago, Calli Johnston decided to become a schoolteacher.

But Johnston--who requested her real name not be used in this story--would later discover that her great GPA was a handicap, not an asset.

Employed by a local school district as a long-term substitute teacher at a middle school, Johnston last year learned about a new opportunity offered by Pima Community College. The Teacher Preparation Program Internship would boost Johnston's pay considerably while also preparing her for a permanent classroom career.

"You're paid like the certified teachers with health benefits," Johnston says about the program. That pay--about $30,000 a year--is much better than the approximately $100 a day with no benefits she was taking home as a long-term substitute.

"The first obstacle I encountered," Johnston says about trying to enroll in the PCC program, "is that my GPA was too high. ... If there is a teacher shortage, why are they excluding populations?"

According to information given to Johnston by officials at PCC, students entering the secondary-school level of the internship program must have a "GPA lower than (their emphasis) 3.0 on B.A./B.S. degree."

The same requirement, however, is not applicable to interns working in elementary schools. Brian Nelson, the teaching education program coordinator at PCC, confirms the below-3.0 GPA standard. He says it is a requirement of the Arizona Department of Education. Up in Phoenix, Education Department representative Jan Amator replies: "We'd never ask someone to have a low GPA."

But Amator's boss, Patty Hardy, is more circumspect in explaining the GPA situation. She points out there are two internship programs: one for high school, the other for elementary and middle school teachers. While there is the GPA requirement at the high school level, Hardy says. "There is no grade-point restriction" for the lower grades, she states.

Whatever the actual rationale behind the confusing GPA requirement at Pima, after some delay, the college waived the standard for Johnston, and she is about to become an intern teacher. When she does, she will join a small but growing number of people who are pursuing that route into the classroom.

After years of teacher shortages, school districts in Arizona have relied heavily on people who have obtained emergency certifications. Those holding such certificates often had college degrees, but lacked formal teacher training. In 2006, there were almost 1,500 teachers statewide using the emergency-certification process to qualify to be in the classroom.

Another teacher-obtaining method employed by school districts is to hire long-term substitute teachers. Not only do these people usually lack teacher training, but they are also legally restricted to teaching only 120 of the 180 days in the school term.

In an effort to reduce and possibly eliminate emergency certifications, in 2006, a limit of three total years per long-term substitute was placed on this process. At the same time, the State Board of Education instituted the intern program.

One distinct advantage of the program that is highlighted by school-district officials is that interns are considered "highly qualified" teachers under the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Those teaching with emergency certifications, on the other hand, are not.

"The TPP (Teacher Preparation Program Intern Teaching Certificate) is a two year program," states the Department of Education Web site, "designed for elementary, middle grades and special education candidates."

In practice, interns have an employment commitment from the school district they are working for, and teach in the classroom during those two years. Unlike people with emergency certificates, however, interns have mentoring provided to them.

While they are employed full-time, the interns are also taking classes which will help them gain their teaching certificate.

The Amphitheater School District started this school year with 30 teaching vacancies, but only has a few interns currently. "An advantage of the program," says Todd Jaeger, spokesman for the district, "is it is getting participants who will become fully licensed teachers.

"Interns typically come with a lack of background in the way to teach," Jaeger says, adding that such a background can be learned during their educational training at PCC.

The Tucson Unified School District currently has 80 teachers with emergency certificates, and employs about one dozen teaching interns. Alyson Nielson, director of employment services for the district, says the district is particularly steering those with emergency certifications in special education toward the PCC internship program.

Meanwhile, Johnston is about to start her teaching-internship classes at Pima Community College, joining about 55 others already involved with the program. She will continue to teach at a local middle school.

In addition to the GPA issue, Johnston had several other time-consuming administrative hurdles to overcome--including one costly bureaucratic error--before she could become a teaching intern. "I think the stipulations of the program are really strange," she comments of her experience.

Johnston suggests others who are interested in the program be patient as they wade through the regulations and restrictions. "It's been made extraordinarily difficult for me," she says, "but I want to be a teacher."

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