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RPS program aims to increase number of teachers of color

A person is lit by a computer as they work
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Antanik Bumpers goes through her materials during an information session for prospective teachers on Tuesday, October 10, 2023 at Henry Marsh Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.

The Build Our Own Teacher Program offers support for teaching assistants to gain licensure.

Stephanie Brewington has been trying to get her teacher licensure for years — but couldn’t afford it.

“It's very expensive to go and take these classes,” Brewington told VPM News.

She’d take a class here and there over the past several years, paying about $1,000 for each. But she didn’t know the exact process for completing her teacher licensure.

“I was taking tests that I didn't even need for the license, passing them,” Brewington said. “There's not a lot of people out here you can go directly to and ask them which direction do I need to go in, in order to get my license?”

Brewington has a degree in social work, but worked as a teaching assistant in Henrico County Public Schools for 15 years before considering a career change as a flight attendant. Eventually, she decided to stick with teaching and has worked as a teaching assistant at the preschool level for Richmond Public Schools for the past few years.

She’s among about 70 RPS staff members in the first cohort of a teacher training initiative the division recently launched called the Build Our Own Teacher Program. It’s aimed at helping staff already working within the district to become fully licensed. For Brewington, it’s been life-changing.

“I’ve been trying to get in a program like this for about 20 years,” Brewington said. “This program directs you exactly to the tests you need to take, and they just tell you exactly what you need to do, so that you're not wasting your time, you're not wasting your money.”

Rodney Robinson, a senior advisor for Richmond Public Schools, said a 2021 report from VCU served as the project’s inspiration. The report detailed barriers to teacher licensure like inaccessibility of accurate and up-to-date information about the licensure process for educators of color.

Rodney speaks with a hand raised
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Rodney Robinson chats with a perspective teacher during an information session on Tuesday, October 10, 2023 at Henry Marsh Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.

Another recent state report also pointed to unclear information about licensure requirements as a barrier, stating that “VDOE does not publish information specifying which courses meet licensure requirements. As a result, provisionally licensed teachers may take courses that do not fulfill Virginia’s licensure requirements, which can be costly and delay their ability to teach.”

Robinson said a couple of years ago — when the district started examining employees’ skills — they discovered RPS had over 140 support personnel with bachelor’s degrees but didn’t have a teaching license; once you have a bachelor’s degree in Virginia, you can qualify for an alternative track to licensure.

“We just said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a teacher? And if you do, we will pay for your classes and your testing licensure fees … everything necessary to become a teacher. In exchange, you give us three years in the classroom,’” Robinson said. “What we found was most of them were waiting for an opportunity like that.”

Robinson said most of the staff in the program now are either instructional assistants or long-term substitute teachers — though he said a few aren’t currently in the classroom.

Antanik Bumpers, also a part of the first BOOT cohort, told VPM News in October she was hoping to transition from a long-term substitute position to a contracted teaching position as a first grade J.H. Blackwell Elementary School teacher. Bumpers studied psychology in college, but said she quickly discovered she wanted to do something else and realized she enjoyed working with kids.

“I have noticed that kids can use more adults who advocate for them, and listen to them and value their families,” Bumpers told VPM News. “I just wanted to be part of making that happen.”

People raise their hands
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Perspective teachers attend an information session on Tuesday, October 10, 2023 at Henry Marsh Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.

Costs and process

Robinson cited cost as the biggest barrier to teacher licensure completion. He said RPS plans to pay a total of about $6,000 per teacher in the BOOT program to cover all the necessary classes and tests.

He said that’s just not a price teaching assistants can afford: Robinson said a typical salary for them is around $22,000, compared to over double that for a fully licensed teacher.

“You can't take $20,000 a year and afford to spend $3,000-$4,000 worth of classes, you know. So cost has been the major thing,” Robinson said. “But this [BOOT program] takes care of those costs. I think that's the future; we have to eliminate all barriers to getting folks in the classroom. All districts need to start stepping up and talking to their people, and seeing what they need and then provide it.”

The program's first priority is helping staff study for and pass subject-area content tests, Robinson said. Research suggests systemic and racial factors contribute to lower overall licensure exam pass rates among educators of color. After passing these tests, people are eligible for a provisional teaching license — and just need to complete a series of classes before they’re eligible to become fully licensed.

Teachers help other perspective teachers
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Third-grade teacher Alexis Mitchell, second left, speaks with fellow educators following an information session on Tuesday, October 10, 2023 at Henry Marsh Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.

While the first BOOT cohort started this year, it won’t be their last year in the program. Robinson said the second year includes more tutoring, classroom support and mentoring, and pedagogical support.

“Next year, the whole purpose is to build them up to make them great teachers for Richmond Public Schools,” Robinson said.

The district’s career coaches, like Shannon Hodges, help mentor those in the program — which Hodges said could involve helping to create lesson plans, analyze student work, find resources or just be a shoulder to cry on.

“That support that is needed during that first year really can make or break whether that teacher comes back,” Hodges said. “I feel like we really work hard to make sure that they feel that love and that support, and have what they need to be able to stay.”

Between this program — and a couple of others, including a partnership with Virginia State University to provide free master’s degrees — Robinson said the district is increasing the number of fully-licensed teachers of color. He said most programs like this require teachers to take an unpaid year off to pursue their master’s, but BOOT doesn’t.

“This one actually gives them a living wage plus benefits while they earn their teaching degree. So that's revolutionary,” Robinson said.

Across all of its grow-your-own programs, Robinson said 74% of participants have been teachers of color with 18% male minority teachers.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.