It’s that time of year again—the end of summer break—and back to school is right around the corner. For the Hernando County School District (HCSD), there is something even more special that is sure to be a win-win for both the county and the community.
HCSD is set on attracting more highly qualified teachers through the launch of its inaugural Associate Teacher program, part of the school district’s “Learn It U,” an innovative program designed to remove barriers that prevent talented and dedicated individuals from becoming certified educators.
The district has partnered with BloomBoard to become the first Florida county to add a pathway that allows aspiring teachers to receive on-the-job training while earning their bachelor’s degree in elementary education at no cost to the aspiring teacher.
Ray Pinder, Assistant Superintendent, is excited to bring this program to fruition and indicated that the idea was first discussed around four to five years ago when the school district saw a downward trend of fewer applicants to teaching positions.
Applicants who traditionally held a bachelor’s degree in other fields besides education were often certified temporarily through an alternative education teacher (Alt-Ed) program. It would take around three years for them to become fully professionally certified, but retaining them was another issue.
“We went from hiring a lot of people out of a college many years ago through Alt-Ed, and then those Alt-Ed teachers were not staying either,” said Pinder. “To make a very long story short, our openings were exceeding the number of people that we were hiring for- that gap was increasing.”
“I started this idea of how can we think out of the box and fill some positions,” Pinder added, emphasizing that the teacher shortage is a nationwide problem, not limited to Hernando County.
“What really made it kind of take-off was when I contacted a company, Bloomboard, about an apprenticeship program. So that led us to where we are today, with associate teachers.”
Applicants selected for the program will have to move along at a “pretty hefty pace,” according to Pinder. The aspiring teachers must navigate between working a full-time job and going to college full-time, often studying nights and weekends, and continuing at that pace for five years. The end result?
By removing financial and time barriers, Pinder is hopeful that the teachers will ultimately find a place to stay in the long term.
“My goal is that these are people that are rooted in our community; they have ties here; their family is here,” he said. “There’s a better chance at retaining these teachers once they become teachers. The other thing we are doing is investing in our community. We are building people from a lower paying job to a higher paying job, and all that goes back to the county. If they are making more money, then that’s generating more money in Hernando County.”
One of the first applicants benefiting from the program is Hernando County Schools alum and local resident Sofia Villanueva, who joins 20 other associate teachers that have been offered positions.
Villanueva, a Weeki Wachee High graduate, will be able to apply real-world teaching experience from her classroom as part of the instruction toward earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
“Being in the Associate Teacher Program eases the burden of limited time, money, and training that often deters talented and motivated individuals from becoming educators,” Pinder stated.
A 31-year veteran with Hernando Schools, Pinder knows the place he has called home for decades and hopes to instill that sense of community and longevity in new associate teachers.
“We want to invest in everyone. But certainly, the best use of our dollars, and the dollars we get from our taxpayers, is to invest in people that are going to stay with us or have the potential to stay with us for long-term positions,” he emphasized.
“I think that the program that we have put in place is a win for our students, a win for our school system, a win for the associate teacher to become a teacher, and a win for our county in investing in our own county with people that are going to stay and grow within our community.”