Lucia Cordovano helping grade-school student

Three years ago, Lucia Cordovano landed a teaching job. Two years ago, she earned her alternative teaching license. This year, the CU Denver ASPIRE alumna received the Outstanding New Educator Award from the National Association for Alternative Certification (NAAC).

Things move quickly for students in CU Denver’s ASPIRE to Teach alternative teacher licensure program, which Cordovano completed in 2015. That’s by design. The School of Education & Human Development launched the program in 2014 to address the issue of teacher shortages in certain subject areas and in certain geographic areas throughout the state of Colorado. The program recruits career-changers, that is, people with a BA in other subject areas who decide they want to become a teacher.

“In our high-quality, affordable program, students earn a paycheck as a teacher while getting their license,” said assistant clinical professor Suzanne Arnold,  director of ASPIRE, which is now the largest alternative teacher licensure program in Colorado. “ASPIRE turns out qualified teachers to serve high-need areas and marginalized populations.”

“Never want to miss a day of work”

Filling teaching positions in special education can be a challenge for schools. Thanks to Cordovano and the ASPIRE program, that’s not a problem at STRIVE Prep – Westwood, a public charter school in southwest Denver.

Lucia Cordovano with student at desk
Lucia Cordovano teaching at STRIVE Prep – Westwood in Denver

The award-winning educator taught special education there during her year in the ASPIRE program and continues to teach at the school, which is in a low-income neighborhood of Denver.

“Often, children with disabilities aren’t getting what they deserve in school, and these students can be left behind without the right support,” Cordovano said. “They all have different strengths and needs, so I need to learn about each individual student and figure out what works for them.”

Cordovano spends a good deal of her time and energy at work building and nurturing her relationships with students. She believes that prioritizing social and emotional learning has contributed to her success as an educator.

“Special education students need a teacher who’s flexible, forgiving and kind,” she said. “They also need structure and consistency—and that makes me never want to miss a day of work.”

“I needed all the help I could get”

A focus on relationships is also what made CU Denver’s ASPIRE program a good fit for Cordovano. In addition to completing coursework online, CU Denver ASPIRE students receive customized one-on-one coaching and mentoring from a dedicated alternative licensure instructor (ALI) and engage in regular check-ins with classmates through professional learning community meetings.

“I loved ASPIRE,” Cordovano said. “I got lots of face time with my ALI, I got teaching ideas from other first-year teachers, and the program helped me contextualize my learning because I could try out what I was learning the very next day at school.”

She admits that she felt stressed as a first-year teacher, but she benefited from the individualized support of her ALI, Jennifer Fox, who, like Cordovano, is a special education teacher. Cordovano would often record herself in her classroom and share the video with Fox to get critiques of specific student interactions.

“My first day at STRIVE was also my first day in the ASPIRE program, so I felt like I needed all the help I could get,” she said.

More than 200 students enroll in the ASPIRE program each year, and Arnold credits the work of the nine ASPIRE ALIs for the program’s 90 percent graduation rate.

“They’re an incredible team of people who are genuinely interested in improving educational experiences for students in Colorado by working with these teachers,” Arnold said.

“Someone who was trying to become a better teacher”

When asked why she thinks she received this year’s NAAC Outstanding New Educator Award, Cordovano seemed flabbergasted. She was just “someone who was trying to become a better teacher.”

“I don’t know,” said the Connecticut native who earned her bachelor’s degree from CU Boulder in speech language and hearing sciences. “I did well in the ASPIRE program because I wasn’t just doing it to do it. I was really excited by the whole program and trying to make meaning of it.”

Lucia Cordovano with student at whiteboard
The 2017 NAAC Outstanding New Educator Award winner, Lucia Cordovano

Cordovano was selected from a national pool of nominees in their first three years of teaching who were certified through an alternative route program. The award is given based on “passion for and commitment to the success of every student.”

“It’s not often a candidate can grab the full nuance and complexity of special education in their first year of teaching, but Lucia was able to look through so many lenses at once when it came to her students,” said Fox, who, with Arnold, nominated Cordovano for the award. “Because of this, she excelled in ASPIRE and continues to be a force for the students she works with.”

As part of the award, Cordovano received a monetary reward, a complimentary one-year NAAC membership, and registration and travel expenses for the 2017 NAAC annual conference. She and Fox traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for the conference in March.

“This award is a big honor in the alternative licensure community,” Cordovano said. “It will help me with the rest of my career and opportunities in the future.”

Speaking of the future … what will that look like?

“I want to continue working with students from low-income backgrounds and children with disabilities, and I’m considering pursuing a graduate degree,” she said. “I’m still deciding on my future, but I know it will involve working with children.”

CU in the City logo