Small program meets a big need for teachers in hard-to-fill slots

Retired Navy Commander Len Cooke understands why school districts across the state have a difficult time hiring math teachers.

“Students hate math. Who wants to teach a student’s least favorite subject?” he said.

Well, it turns out he does.


Newly-minted math teacher Len Cooke (c) with other graduates of the Alternate Route to Certification program

“Look, I have been an engineer all my life and I didn’t even enjoy math when I was in school. I think I can get students to enjoy it,” he said, surrounded by 92 other adults graduating with teaching certificates Wednesday at Conard High School in West Hartford.

And it turns out more than two-thirds of these soon-to-be teachers with previous professions are also headed to teach subjects for which school districts have trouble finding qualified teachers.

“We really focus on the critical shortage areas to determine what programs we will offer,” said Jane Ciarleglio, who manages financial and academic affairs for the Alternate Route to Certification. “There’s no point in offering a teaching program for people to go into if they won’t be able to get a job.”

The ARC program educated one-third of all the newly-certified middle and high school math teachers between January 2001 and August 2008, even though there are many larger teacher preparation programs, according to data from the Office of Financial and Academic Affairs for Higher Education.

The program fills a similar void when looking at the other subjects the State Department of Education has labeled “critical shortage areas.” About half of the newly-certified foreign language and science teachers came from the ARC program, as well as almost all of the bilingual education teachers.

“There is such a need in our state for these teachers,” said Maria Kot-Davoodi, the director of the program.

And local school administrators are taking notice that the program is one of their best bets for filling these frequently-vacant positions.

“There is no question they are producing teachers in the areas that we need,” said Tom Moore, the assistant superintendent for administration at West Hartford Public Schools, who spoke during the graduation.

Just why the ARC program, which graduates about 215 people a year, helps produce more teachers in high-needs areas then other larger colleges in the state is something legislators for years have been trying to answer.

The state’s higher education co-chair Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, has questioned for years whether the state should play a more active role when students are considering what to major in by creating a master plan for higher education. A study completed by legislative staff in 2009 found that many colleges are not aligning their programs with the jobs that are actually needed.

“While some occupations, such as registered nurses, appeared to be particularly well aligned [with demand], the majority of occupations examined seemed to have an oversupply,” the report said, particularly citing elementary school teachers.

One reason why this program may be so attractive for students is the low cost, which is $4,000. The 3-month length of the program also attracted many of Wednesday’s graduates. Forty-five percent of those that apply get accepted to the program.

Cooke said while he is happy that he will be teaching students that may otherwise be taught by a less-qualified teacher, he is in the process now of applying to urban schools like Windham that have the biggest achievement gap and that typically have the most difficulty filling and keeping teachers in these subjects.

“I’m attracted to these schools because they have the greatest need for teachers that can really make a difference,” he said. “I bought a house. I plan on sticking around Connecticut.”