Teacher sitting with two students near mountains

Amid Colorado’s short-grass prairies, hidden-jewel farming communities and small historic mountain towns, educators, non-profits and community members are feeling the pinch. School districts are facing remarkable challenges finding and retaining highly qualified teachers, especially in high-needs fields, such as special education, math and science.

Three kids walking on trail near mountains
In rural Colorado, school districts are facing challenges finding and retaining highly qualified teachers, especially in high-needs fields, such as special education, math and science.

Nonprofits and human-services agencies in rural Colorado are having issues finding individuals with the necessary degrees who are fully trained to serve their diversifying communities. Historically, these challenges have existed, in part, because of these communities’ distance from universities that prepare teachers and other service professionals.

For the past 23 years, the School of Education & Human Development (SEHD) has been actively addressing these statewide needs and breaking down traditional barriers through key partnerships, innovative technological solutions and grant-funded opportunities. As the higher-education landscape continues to change and evolve, CU Denver expects these grassroots, customizable partnership programs to expand, because they are an efficient method for partners and the university to move their missions forward.

SEHD has a multi-pronged strategy to partnering with rural communities to address the crisis:

‘Grow-your-own’ high school programs

The university hosts a Rising Rural Educators Gala for rural students who have been identified by their teachers as having the potential to be great future rural teachers. The gala serves not only to recognize and celebrate these students and their family members and friends but also to elevate the image of rural teaching as a valuable and important career choice.

The teachers who nominated the students join the celebration, along with local rural education leaders and current students in our new undergraduate rural residency programs. This celebration helps establish the connections and relationships necessary for these young students to entertain a future career in teaching.

‘Grow-your-own’ undergraduate programs

Teacher walking with student near barn
Nonprofits and human-services agencies in rural Colorado are having issues finding education professionals with the necessary degrees who are fully trained to serve their diversifying communities.

In 2017, CU Denver and local rural district partners launched a first-of-its-kind undergraduate rural residency program with Otero Junior College in La Junta. The result was a clinically rich, four-year teaching degree in elementary education.

In summer 2018, the university added a new partnership with Trinidad State Junior College. Students obtain their associate’s degree on the community college campuses during the first two years. Starting in year three, they work primarily with CU Denver faculty, teaching courses locally and through online coursework.

Throughout the four-year program, students are deeply involved in early clinical experiences and participate in a full-year teaching residency during their senior year. They receive a BA in Education and Human Development and a teaching license from CU Denver. In Trinidad, students also have the option to earn a BS in Human Development and Family Relations from CU Denver.

“It’s very important for me that students in our rural partnerships are able to get training in a university system as high quality as CU,” said Ruben Viramontez Anguiano, PhD, professor of Human Development and Family Relations. “Individuals get a strong foundation with an associate’s degree. Then, they get the last few years with CU professors in person and online with a degree they can be proud of, without having to leave their communities.”

‘Grow-your-own’ graduate teacher program

SEHD’s ASPIRE to Teach alternative teacher licensure program is a highly personalized and low-cost option for individuals in rural Colorado who already have a bachelor’s degree and have decided to pursue a teaching career.

The program provides on-the-job training while candidates earn a paycheck as a teacher in a school. ASPIRE has served over 100 candidates in 50 rural districts. It’s the most popular alternative teacher licensure program in the state, with more than 1,000 graduates in five years.

“We utilize technology in innovative ways in this program to reach prospective teachers in rural communities,” said Suzanne Arnold, PhD, director of ASPIRE to Teach. “The high-tech, high-touch program matches each candidate with an alternative licensure instructor, or ALI, who mentors and provides one-on-one support and personalized coaching, matching program curriculum with candidates’ needs to enhance development and growth. We are currently coaching teachers in 18 fields, including high-need fields, such as math, science and special education.”

Continuing and professional education for rural teachers

Rural teachers are often expected to handle multiple subject areas while preparing youth for college, career and civic readiness. This is where focused continuing education, funded by multiple CU Denver federal grants, has attracted and helped retain rural teachers.

“Living and working within a rural community, it is difficult to find affordable and quality professional development for our teachers and staff. CU Denver provides that and more to my school.”

“We intentionally co-construct all of our various programs and professional learning opportunities in partnership with rural schools and districts to ensure teacher candidates and current teachers engage in content-specific curricula and meaningful clinical experience,” said Cindy Gutierrez, director of SEHD’s Office of Partnerships.

Grants like NxtGEN – an $8.5 million, five-year teacher preparation grant – have made a world of difference to educators in rural Colorado,” said Ritu Chopra, PhD, executive director of SEHD’s Paraprofessional Resource and Research Center. “And we have just secured another grant called Ensuring Preparation of Inclusive Childhood Educators (Project EPIC-ECE).” Project EPIC-ECE is working with early childhood programs across the state to infuse special education lessons into the curriculum for meaningful inclusion of young children (birth through age 8) with disabilities and their families in classrooms.”

“Living and working within a rural community, it is difficult to find affordable and quality professional development for our teachers and staff,” said Yvonne Wiening, principal of Hoenhe School near Trinidad. “CU Denver provides that and more to my school. We have been fortunate to have the opportunity for teachers to utilize their alternative licensure program and earn credits for relicensing purposes. We are extremely grateful for the partnership to maintain the quality of educational experiences within our small, rural school.”

From the heart of the city to the far corners of the state

“It’s really great to work in communities where we know we can invest and to be committed to places and children and families who don’t always receive the attention that larger cities receive. Our partnerships reach from the heart of the city to communities throughout the state. We are ‘CU in the City’ and across Colorado! We are doing work in places where, if we weren’t, no one would be. And that really is having an impact on children.

“I believe strongly in our rural partnership work. Together, we’re inspiring teachers committed to inclusivity, excellence and acting with a sense of urgency to advocate for education equity for all students in Colorado, regardless of where they live. When you’re actually growing someone’s passion who’s from the rural community with roots there, and a commitment and a passion for being there, then you’re growing teachers and human services professionals who will stay and contribute for many years to come.” – Barbara Seidl, PhD, associate dean of teacher education and undergraduate experiences

Guest contributor: Julia Cummings, School of Education and Human Development

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