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Editorial: Fast-track teacher program belongs at front of the class

Four years ago a school district in a community that prides itself in its Spanish heritage went an entire year without a Spanish teacher. Students in the district had to jump through hoops to receive credit for taking a foreign language because they had a substitute for the school year. The school district scrambled to find a solution to allow the seniors to graduate.

It’s a real-life example of a problem many school districts in New Mexico face: There are not enough qualified teachers to fill the teaching positions that are open.

As of Oct. 1, there were 740 empty teacher slots in the state, according to New Mexico State University.

That’s why an online program fast-tracking teacher licensure for those with bachelor’s degrees or higher is long overdue. While some state lawmakers have tried for years to address the need for qualified teachers, especially those in STEM fields, by mining the many professionals in our communities, the state Legislature has been unable or unwilling to codify alternative licensure in statute.

New Mexico Highlands University’s new two-semester program, the Highlands School of Education Alternative Teacher Certification, has the approval of the Higher Learning Commission, the New Mexico Public Education Department and the Highlands Board of Regents. Virginia Padilla-Vigil, dean of the Highlands School of Education, is hopeful the teachers created through program will help fill some of the many vacancies in the state. Application for the 30 seats opens in January, with the program expected to begin in March. About 40 students have already expressed interest. Courses will be offered online, each candidate will be assigned a mentor and instructional coach for feedback and support, and classroom experience is also required.

And while there are the usual naysayers – Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein warns that being an expert in a subject doesn’t guarantee someone can teach it, and “if you’re not prepared well, you’re going to leave the profession, making it a short-term solution” – the status quo of random substitutes is really no solution at all. Doesn’t it make more sense, in a state with three national labs and 32 institutions of higher education, to get some people with mastery of subject matter at the front of our K-12 classrooms? As for the concern fast-trackers won’t make teaching a career, don’t folks who graduate from traditional teaching colleges leave the profession as well? Padilla-Vigil says the Highlands program has done its homework and is modeled on a former partnership with APS that had high retention rates.

Meanwhile, Highlands is not the only state university working to help fill the void. New Mexico Tech is developing its own alternative licensure program in collaboration with a local STEM coalition, although that program is not yet up and running. And Central New Mexico Community College has a four-semester in-person program for alternative licensure.

But with the teacher shortage that New Mexico faces, and the lack of action by state lawmakers to address it, additional programs that put experts of any subject – especially science and math – in the classroom is a welcome step forward for our K-12 students.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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