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Staying Power

New academic program helps keep temporary teachers in the classroom

After a career in childcare, Melissa Schwalbe is focused on her long-held goal of being a public school teacher. Thanks to a new initiative from Bridgewater State University, that objective is closer than ever.

Schwalbe is among thousands of school staff across the state holding temporary emergency teaching licenses. BSU is offering a program that keeps them in the classroom as they complete the coursework necessary to earn regular licenses – for free.

“I’m excited about this,” said Schwalbe, a special education paraprofessional for the North Attleboro Public Schools. “This is going to allow me to pursue my dreams.”

Funded through a $600,000 state grant, participants receive advising, preparation for MTEL exams, and access to courses that also count toward a master’s degree. Many come into the program without prior education classes because they only needed a bachelor’s degree (in any subject) to secure an emergency license.

The need for this program is immense, as Massachusetts issued approximately 5,000 emergency licenses to combat a critical shortage of educators during the pandemic.

“Now the challenge is to get these folks through the teacher preparation program and on to (initial) licensure as quickly as possible, so they don’t lose time in the classroom,” said Dr. Patricia Emmons, associate dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences.

BSU, which is the first university to receive a grant, aims to serve about 700 emergency licensed teachers from schools across Southeastern Massachusetts, Emmons said.

“Our mission is to educate students, but also to make an impact on our communities,” said Dr. Lisa Krissoff Boehm, dean of the College of Graduate Studies. “This keeps that high-quality teacher out there working with students.”

Bridgewater is a perfect institution to host the initiative given its well-respected teacher preparation program and extensive partnerships with local schools, said Paul Hilton, executive director of the Cape Cod Collaborative, a regional organization that provides instructional and support services to school districts.

“It makes Bridgewater the focal point for this education,” Hilton said. “They become a leader in this process.”

Many of the educators are changing careers and some come from international backgrounds, making individualized attention even more important as they navigate a complicated licensing path to remain in the classroom.

“Having a support system through that process is really, really valuable,” Boehm said.

Participants take one or two classes a semester along with intersession and summer coursework, a pace that allows them to continue working full-time for their districts.

That was an important factor for Schwalbe, who has filled in as a teacher in addition to her paraprofessional role.

“What’s so nice about this program is they’re spreading it out,” she said. “It’s obtainable.”

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