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Students at this Phoenix high school are training to help fix Arizona's teacher shortage

Arizona continues to deal with a shortage of teachers — and the problem of keeping the teachers it does have in the classroom.

A survey this past fall from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found nearly 30% of the teaching vacancies across the state were still unfilled, while more than half of the vacancies were filled by teachers who don’t meet the state’s standard certification requirements.

But, as of this school year, there’s a new effort to help train new teachers and get them in the pipeline, and it’s coming from a novel source: high school. Phoenix Educator Preparatory is part of the Phoenix Union High School District — this is the first year it’s been open, although it’s been in the works for a couple of years.

Alaina Adams is the school’s inaugural principal and an alum of the district. She spoke with The Show about Phoenix Educator Preparatory's goals.

Full interview

ALAINA ADAMS: Mark, they are both big and small and everything in between. We, we have a national educator crisis in our nation, right? And Arizona is not immune to that. And so the obvious reason that our school exists is to grow to not only recruit and retain future educators for our world. It is a need in the United States of America.

And how do you go about doing that? I mean, typically when we think about training teachers, we think about it on the college or university level or even the grad school level, but not as much as the high school level.

ADAMS: Exactly. And so in the Phoenix Union High School District, our brand promise is to welcome love and inspire all students to go places and do things that matter. And we have seen that our youth have the ability to go places and do things that matter before they graduate in 12th grade.

And we have been planning with our P 20 partners, that's the Arizona Department of Education, that's our community college network, higher education, other fields like health care, Chicanos por La Causa, Banner Health. And they believe similarly. And so we're all in it together to create a system in which our youth can safely begin to demonstrate via apprenticeship. Those transferable skills that we know educators have, and we're defining educators as teachers, counselors, social workers and psychologists for our pathways of study. And we know that, that those jobs happen in school buildings and they also happen in our world.

So can you sort of walk us through the, the how the curriculum works? Because we're talking about in general 14- to 18-year-olds and you're talking about, you know, getting them involved in the teaching profession. So how do you take somebody at that age who may or may not know what they want to do for, you know, for a career going forward and get them interested in and get them prepared for being in the classroom, being a counselor or any of the other educator jobs you mentioned?

ADAMS: Yes, it has to be done very mindfully and it obviously has to be developmentally appropriate, which is why we have so many partners that are joining us and we are using a communities of practice structure and what that means. It's very popular in other international systems. I think Canada maybe Finland is using pieces of it, where you have dedicated spaces on your campus where community members can come and be and and have drop down spaces to work similar to a college campus. And then you curate ways for our youth to engage with the just right members of our community to help mentor and guide them and get those transferable skills from the classroom into our communities and back and forth.

And as they become upperclassmen, they will go out into those communities and do mini student teaching or mini observations or maybe digestible wellness ambassador activities, things that are developmentally appropriate under the guidance of the experts in our classrooms in the Valley and in our communities that have those skills.

What kind of interest have you seen so far, I understand that you're just in your first year here. But like how many students do you have? What kind of interest maybe do you have for future years?

ADAMS: Yes. So our students, we're using also an academy style of, of a career academies model and, and what that enables our students to do is to come in their freshman year and just be freshman, just understand what it is to be in high school and to learn from the upperclassmen and hear from those community members. And then at the end of the freshman year, there is a pledging ceremony and they will pledge a pathway of study.

And it is from that 10th through 12th grade year that they now get the required curriculum from our Department of Education and dual enrollment credit through our first dual enrollment partner, which is Phoenix College. So our students could quite literally graduate with a high school diploma and an associate or as close to it as possible when they leave our system, which jumpstarts their future at whatever university they choose to go to.

And we are hoping that they will double major and we are going to start guiding them at the 10th grade level to research other careers that they are interested in. So that they know when they leave us what their side bachelor's is going to be. And if they choose to put their education bachelor's to work, they finish up whatever classes they might need for that bachelor's, it will give them more time to focus on the second bachelor's degree.

And if they choose to come back and serve in our schools through our P20 partner network, as we're building that over the next two years to mobilize them, then they will get priority hiring within our system for sure. And within our partner system as we set those systems up. But if they don't choose to become an educator, we know that they will still be educating our world in different buildings in different ways because we know that the art of education is about teaching, leading and caring in our world.

Well, I was gonna ask you about that whether, you know, since you're getting students at a younger age than is traditionally what we talk about for training teachers. I, I was gonna ask if you were concerned that, you know, as your students progress through high school and then for college, if they would decide that, you know, maybe classroom teaching, maybe being a counselor, isn't really for them. They wanted to do something else altogether. It sounds like, yes, that is the thing that could happen, but it does not sound like it's a terribly big concern for you.

ADAMS: Exactly. Because if you're supporting your local communities, you could be teaching in a Fortune 500 company, you could be teaching in the Governor's Office. And so we believe, and we've seen during COVID, that education and educating our world can happen inside and outside of school buildings. And that might mean that our youth chooses to do that education work in a non-school building. And, and that's OK.

Well, so given that, how big of a dent do you think that this school that your program can put into the teacher recruitment and, and retention issue that this state and others have had over the last number of years?

ADAMS: Yes, it is a, it is a really big need in our world and, and especially in Arizona. And so we aim to fill every vacancy and hole, that's always the big dream. And realistically, we're gonna focus on our local communities and the partners that come forward to help in manageable local ways. And we are prepared to partner nationally and internationally as well to give our students additional options as we're getting to know our first group of students and as those 9th graders become 10th graders, we will add 100 new students every year. We're literally listening to our students and we are building the pipelines and the opportunities based on their interests.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.