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Wyoming plans to pilot apprenticeship program this fall as schools struggle to find teachers

Teachers greet students during the first day of the new school year at Lincoln Elementary on Sept. 1, 2021. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City File)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Department of Education is preparing to launch a pilot teacher apprenticeship program and eventually offer it across the state to help school districts struggling to get educators into classrooms.

The idea for the apprenticeship program is one of the first things new Wyoming Superintendent Brian Schroeder started working on when he took the helm in February after the resignation of former Superintendent Jillian Balow. During his first few weeks in office, a district superintendent informed Schroeder that her school district was expecting to lose up to 50 teachers before the start of the 2022–2023 school year.

“Her question to me, [me] being new but [her district] in desperation, was, ‘How do I replace that many teachers next year?'” Schroeder said in an interview Wednesday.

Schroeder had just read something about Tennessee implementing a teacher apprenticeship program, and he asked the district superintendent whether an apprenticeship program like that might help.

“She said, ‘Absolutely, that would be amazing, please get it done,'” Schroeder said.

Wyoming education officials then attended a conference in Washington D.C. where Tennessee officials shared about the new apprenticeship program.

“What they had for three to four years straight was a teacher shortage of between 1,000 and 1,200 teachers every year in the state of Tennessee,” Schroeder said.

One county in Tennessee then implemented an apprenticeship program that proved successful, and the program was soon expanded statewide.

“They got the Department of Labor to register it and and they have so solved their teacher shortage problem that they went from between 1,000 and 1,200 teacher vacancies every year to now they have a waiting list of folks waiting to get into the classroom,” Schroeder said. “So it’s been highly successful and then maybe one of the best parts is Tennessee is not territorial or possessive. They’re all too happy to share it with the rest of the states.”

After the conference, Schroeder pushed his team at the Wyoming Department of Education to get started right away to look into implementing a similar program in Wyoming.

“I admonished them, ‘Let’s not drag our feet on this,'” Schroeder said. “We want a quality product so we don’t want to go so super fast that we rush this, but we also don’t want to drag our feet.”

The Wyoming Department of Education presented their initial plans to Governor Mark Gordon on Wednesday and Schroeder said the governor seemed enthusiastic. The Department of Education is looking to partner with three schools to launch the pilot apprenticeship program this fall. Which schools those will be has yet to be determined, but the Department of Education plans to work with a small, medium and large school during the pilot phase of the program, according to Schroeder.

The idea of the program is to create a pathway to help people who might otherwise face hurdles in doing becoming teachers do so.

“Bus drivers, food services people, people in the community who have maybe a college degree, but they don’t have a teaching degree — this would be a pathway for them to get in, which would be very exciting, very inspiring because we all know people who aren’t classroom teachers, but who have the gift of teaching,” Schroeder said.

The degree to which school districts are struggling to find teachers varies, but it is something many are dealing with, Schroeder said, noting that he has visited over 15 districts in Wyoming since becoming superintendent. The new apprenticeship program wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all model, but would leave room for local control, according to Schroeder. The Department of Education is also trying to learn from what school districts are already doing to try and address teacher shortages to help share best practices across the state.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated the teacher shortage in Wyoming and across the country, Schroeder said he thinks some of the conditions that led to it predate the pandemic.

“COVID just exacerbated it and maybe put it on the fast track,” he said. “Now that COVID is easing up, we hope, there is no one out there that’s saying this [teacher shortage] is going to change in a matter of six months.”

Teachers are feeling immense amounts of stress, perhaps more than at any point in the country’s history, Schroeder, who spent 15 years as a classroom teacher, said.

“The political climate is such that whether you’re a parent on the left or the right, the teachers just feel like they can’t do anything right and they’re feeling attacked even by people that may line up with them politically,” Schroeder said. “They’re just feeling attacked by the public.”

Teachers are also being asked to take on more and more work, and some of the students they are asked to educate may have more extensive social and emotional learning needs than in years past, according to Schroeder. That, combined with a lack of flexibility in terms of providing pathways for people to obtain teaching credentials, is contributing to the teacher shortages.

Despite the challenges, Schroeder said he thinks Wyoming teachers, principals and superintendents continue to do good work across the state.

“I would like to trumpet what is happening in our district schools and classrooms, and it is amazing,” he said. “All the attacks and criticisms notwithstanding, our teachers and principals and superintendents are doing amazing work.”

There are plenty of different funding options available for the new apprenticeship program, according to Schroeder. At the school district level, funding may be available through the state’s School Foundation Program block grants, through federal ESSER or ARPA funds, or other channels. There may be some apprenticeship grants available through the Department of Workforce Services. There is also the Hathaway Scholarship and the Wyoming Tomorrow Scholarship.

“The funding is there,” Schroeder said.

The Department of Education is aware that some of the federal funding won’t always be available and would only look to use that get help get programs underway, according to Schroeder. How the apprenticeship programs get funded will vary from district to district depending on what makes sense at the local level, he added.

The Department of Education has a working group meeting every week to hammer out a framework for the new apprenticeship program. A draft guiding document will be reviewed next week and the Department will engage in conversation with the legislature, the Professional Teaching Standards Board, community colleges, the University of Wyoming and local school districts about the framework.

Schroeder is optimistic that Wyoming will be able to repeat some of Tennessee’s success.

“When I came back from [Tennessee’s presentation], I was super inspired because I was once a classroom teacher and a principal and I feel the angst, I feel their pain,” Schroeder said. “This does not bode well for our students if we don’t respond to this crisis.”