Savanna Jones and Kerry Mattingly always wanted to be teachers, but life got in the way.

Jones had three children, two with developmental disabilities, and put her college on hold to care for them before going to work as a substitute teacher and aide at Mark Twain Elementary School in Carthage.

Mattingly had a good career with a good paycheck, but her heart wasn't in it. She thought she could suppress that urge to be in the classroom by serving on the school board in her hometown of Exeter for 11 years, but that only fueled her passion for education.

Jones and Mattingly now are two of 37 paraprofessionals taking part in a new program through the Webb City-based Southwest Center for Educational Excellence to help paras who want to be teachers get their bachelor’s degrees and teaching certificates.

The Missouri Achievement for a Collaborative Teacher residency program "creates a nontraditional pathway that allows paraprofessionals, meeting grant qualifications and currently working in our districts, to remain working while attaining their teacher certification," said Melissa Massey, the Southwest Center's executive director.

Officials hope it will help districts address the perennial shortage of teachers and retain teachers who sometimes use small rural districts as stepping stones to larger, better-paying districts.

Massey said the program is the first of its kind in Missouri, and the Southwest Center will use it to gather data to justify expanding it across the state.

“So many of our schools have paras that would make amazing teachers,” she said. “And because of financial means or scheduling, it’s hard to go back to school later in life or after you’ve established a career.”

Reaching a dream

The Southwest Center received a $3.7 million, five-year federal grant to pay to send two cohorts of at least 70 paraprofessionals through an online teacher education program through Western Governors University to obtain their teaching certificates and bachelor’s degrees over the next five years, Massey said.

She said the center received 170 inquiries about the program last fall and 75 applications. She said 37 were chosen for the first cohort; they will have 18 months to complete the program, and a second cohort will be chosen in two and a half years.

“WGU offers an online program so people can work while they get their degree," Massey said. "Then they meet with us once a month, and we give them professional development in just what a great quality teacher’s classroom consists of and looks like.”

Mattingly wanted to be a teacher, but she ended up choosing a different career path that provided good money. Because she had always dreamed of being in a classroom, she currently works in Exeter’s early childhood department.

“I’m in with our preschoolers, and I have a busy day with 4- and 5-year-olds. It’s a fun age because they love to learn; they’re little sponges,” she said. “This is actually my first year in the classroom.”

Jones, from Carthage, was a substitute teacher for four years before becoming an instructional aide at Mark Twain two and a half years ago. The MoACT program gives her a chance to realize a lifelong dream, she said.

“This means the world for me," she said. "I will become a teacher, and that has been one of the things I’ve looked forward to my whole life.”

Jones said she’s grateful to the Southwest Center and her coworkers at the Carthage School District for the opportunity to participate in the program.

Meeting a need

Carthage Superintendent Mark Baker said the program meets a need by helping paraprofessionals become certified teachers who will stay in their local school district.

“Many paraprofessionals possess exceptional instructional skills but do not have the teaching credentials to be official teachers,” Baker said. “I believe the paraprofessional background will provide unique and valuable experiences as they complete the program and enter the teaching field.

"The classroom issues experienced as paraprofessionals might provide a different insight how to support children. And as the number of adults entering the teaching field diminishes every year, MoACT will provide additional personnel options for districts to fill the teacher shortage gaps," he said.

Mattingly said she has seen some of those issues in Exeter as well.

“A lot of times, our district is used as kind of a stepping stone,” she said. “You teach here for a few years, then move on to a bigger district with more money and more possibilities. So that’s another aspect of the MoACT program — I get a chance to always be at Exeter. As long as they’ll have me, I have no plans to go anywhere else.”

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