According to New Jersey Policy Perspective, just ahead of the pandemic the state marked a milestone. The 2018 – 2019 school year was the first in two decades that the number of new teacher candidates came in at under 3,000. And since then, the outlook hasn’t improved. In 2020, NJPP reported that the state awarded a record-low number of teaching degrees, underscoring the fact that New Jersey produces fewer teachers per 1,000 students than any other state.
Ramapo College of New Jersey is trying to tackle these trends with a unique partnership, borne out of a conversation. The school offers a new, dual-certification program with the Morris-Union Jointure Commission that puts a teacher’s aide or paraprofessional on course to become a certified teacher in one year. “And the intent of the conversation,” said Brian Chinni, Ramapo’s assistant dean of teacher education, “was to really engage in a mutual exchange and a brainstorm regarding creative solutions potentially to the teacher shortage that we’re facing in New Jersey,” and specifically for special needs teachers.
Chinni was talking to the superintendent of the Morris-Union Jointure Commission, Janet Fike, which provides services and programs for 30 constituent school districts in addition to public school programs for students with autism or autistic-like behavior at its two Developmental Learning Centers. To develop the paraprofessional/TA pathway, he said he started with what was already at his disposal – Ramapo’s existing programs for teacher education – then, he began “connecting the dots,” through additional conversations with colleagues — in particular noting Julie Norflus-Good, program director for the Master of Arts in Special Education at Ramapo.
The result is a two-year program. After the first year, participants are eligible for NJ Teacher CEAS and NJ Teacher of Students with Disabilities CE certification. In the second year, participants can earn a Master of Arts in Special Education and be eligible for NJ Teacher of Students with Disabilities CEAS. An overview is available on Ramapo’s website.
The program launched in the summer, to take advantage of the semester, but the move also offered convenience to students working in schools. The summer session is comprised of four courses. The rest of the coursework, which allows for the initial certification, is completed throughout the remainder of the year while TAs and paraprofessionals are working — and that work is applicable for clinical requirements of the certification. As Chinni put it, the two are “seamlessly integrated within their employment.”
The program offers the accelerated timeline it does because it takes advantage of the “year-round semester.”
“The initial cert … is either an elementary, a K-6 certification, or a content-area-specific certification. And that would be for an individual that, let’s say, was a math major … [T]hey would obtain the respective certification in th[at] content area,” Chinni explained. “Within that one year, they’re also eligible for a teacher of students with disabilities certificate of eligibility … So, they have options.”
The remaining coursework takes place across a variety of media in a hybrid approach. “[W]hat that represents for us is really this multimodal learning experience that includes the traditional live, onsite [learning],” he said. “And in conjunction with that, there’s a synchronous learning as well as some virtual experiences. [T]hat can be sustained over the period before the next in-person, onsite meeting. So, we really harness the power [of] technology to enhance the experience.”
The in-person meetings take place at the MUJC’s Professional Development Center in New Providence; sessions meet after workday classes at around 4:30 p.m. The program includes pre-advisement and Chinni said advisors are in constant communication with individuals. As he pointed out, it’s a very big decision for people.
Tapping the pool
When Chinni spoke with NJBIZ at the start of the summer it was about a week after the program completed its first semester, in which 43 students participated. The MUJC represents 30 school districts, making for a “very large pool” of talented candidates. And the program can have an even bigger impact, because anyone in the state is eligible to participate.
Regarding the dearth of teachers in New Jersey, Chinni said anecdotally that this year he almost feels like a hiring agency, with calls from colleagues looking for new teachers. “I think we’re really in a difficult situation, more so than any I’ve ever experienced in my career in terms of shortages of teachers,” he said. But the short timeline of the paraprofessional/TA pathway produces “impact immediately” in that regard. Chinni said that other institutions and colleges and universities have expressed interest in the program as well.
Another important audience expressing interest: the professionals it’s built for.
According to Chinni, within the first month of its launch the program received more than 60 applications. In the late fall and winter of last year, two orientation sessions drew more than 200 participants. He chalks that up to the fact that the program provides something the professionals it is targeting are in search of, and that it works with the work these candidates are already doing.
“It provides a pathway for those that are desiring to be teachers that ordinarily … there would be many obstacles that would prevent [that],” he said. “What better way to engage in a clinical internship than in the context, the authentic context, of one’s own employment in the classroom?”
More news from Ramapo
- Ramapo small business center nurtures success
- Ramapo opens DMC (data, mathematical and computational sciences) hub
- Ramapo College receives $455K grant for sustainability program
- Answering difficult questions: How liberal arts schools equip and empower the leaders our society needs