A new grant is allowing Elkhart schools to reimburse some employees for their last two years of college classes for teacher certification. The Texas COVID Learning Acceleration Supports grant is making it financially possible for three paraprofessionals to earn teacher certifications from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches while continuing to work full-time.
The three educators each signed a memorandum of understanding to apply the funds of $9,000 per year to tuition expenses, complete their degrees by May 2024, and work as teachers for Elkhart Independent School District for four years, provided teaching positions become available.
Ashley Stuart, Marcie Smith and Kristen Sparkman currently work as paraprofessionals. Each qualified for the program with at least 75 college hours. They also completed applications and requested letters of recommendation from principals at their campuses.
All three women said finishing their degrees has been prohibitively expensive and was previously not possible due to needing to work full-time.
Smith, who works as a paraprofessional at Elkhart Middle School, hopes to one day teach students in the sixth, seventh, or eighth grades. She said she has struggled to take college classes for roughly 20 years but is determined to complete her degree.
“It’s been something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time,” she said. “It means so much to me; it really does.”
Stuart currently works at Elkhart Elementary and hopes to teach children in lower elementary, which includes Pre-K through second grade.
“The barrier for me has been financial aid,” Stuart said. “I wouldn’t be able to go back to school if it wasn’t for this grant.”
Sparkman is employed at Elkhart Elementary and wants to teach third or fourth grade.
Superintendent Lamont Smith spoke to the group about the importance of their transition to becoming teachers.
“I am so excited that you are getting ready to embark on a new journey,” Lamont Smith said. “We know that our kids are going to have a brighter future because of you.”
The college classes are online but require participants to complete practical classroom training under supervision of the district’s Director of Professional Development Kaysie Woody. Candidates must complete the program’s requirements such as submitting invoices for tuition payments and grade reports each semester.
The district is developing teachers from current employees to address the local and statewide shortage of educators. Director of Special Projects Tana Herring said she is encouraging other paraprofessionals to complete the required 75 college hours so they can become eligible for the grant if more funds become available.