Reach University is Building and Strengthening New Orleans’ Teacher Workforce
Kimberly Wicks is the Assistant Coordinator of Special Education at New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School. She loves her job.
“I find it exciting. You never know what you’re gonna walk into–every single moment is something new. You have to really think on your feet and think of creative ways of doing things,” she explains.
Wicks wants to do even more with her role–she wants to be able to write the individualized education plans (IEPs) that guide her students’ personal pathways to learning. She wants to be a lead special education teacher.
“I think my ultimate goal right now is to become a special education teacher, start writing IEPs, have that caseload and just be more involved in the IEP process,” she says.
To do so, she’ll need a bachelor’s degree. She’s been working toward one for many years.
“I’ve been trying to get my degree since 2006, when I graduated high school,” she explains.
Wicks was born in Canada, but moved to New Orleans with her husband, who was born and raised in New Orleans. He had graduated from New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School (Sci High), gone on to Xavier University of Louisiana, and now was returning to work at Sci High himself. Wicks took a job there as well. She knew that she wanted to serve young people with disabilities, and she wanted to be the type of educator that stayed at a school for years. She also had more motivation to earn her bachelor’s degree.
“I realized, ‘if I’m going to move up in education, I’m going to have to get a degree,’” she said.
Wicks began taking classes at Delgado Community College, but found it wasn’t a fit. She was determined, though, to keep pursuing her goal.
“And that’s when I found Reach,” she said. The program is designed for school staff, like paraprofessionals, who want to earn their bachelor’s degree and become teachers.
Classes are held virtually, after school hours, and students get course credit by practicing techniques in real time while they do their jobs. Reach’s program also offers high-demand specializations, such as in special education and STEM, to all teacher candidates. It’s one of the city’s expanding number of “Grow Your Own” teaching programs that recruit and prepare future teachers from our city’s own schools.
“It’s perfect for someone who’s working full time and has a family,” Wicks says. “I get to use what I do every day in the classroom as well at Reach, and vice versa. Part of it is learning how to create lesson plans and learning how to cater to diverse learners, and breaking down standards, and part of our grade is made up of the hours that we work in the school.”
For Wicks, this hands-on learning and flexibility makes Reach a perfect fit. She’s not the only one who feels this way. There’s a growing number of Reach students in New Orleans–this year, there were 41, and they hope to expand to have 150 students in the program next year.
One of those students is Carrie Payton-Turner. Like Wicks, she works in special education. She works as a child-specific paraprofessional at Success Prep @ Thurgood Marshall.
“Before Reach,” she says, “I tried to go to school, but it wasn’t conducive to my schedule and it wasn’t financially conducive to my pocket.”
Then she got an email about Reach. She remembers being surprised by what it said.
“They sent out this email saying, ‘Hey, there’s this program called Reach, where you can go to school online, as well as still be able to work. But you will go to classes in the afternoon. And you will only pay like $75 a month.’ I was like, like, what’s the catch?…Like, is that the initiation fee? Is that the first fee that you pay? And then they get you?”
She quickly realized there was no catch.
“You apply for your FAFSA, and then it’s $75 a month. It’s $75 a month and that has not changed. And I am still in school.”
The flexibility of the program has been important, too.
“All your classes are held in the evening time so that you can put your kids to bed, or you can do whatever you need to do before class starts,” she says.
Payton-Turner is eager to develop her SPED-specific expertise. She’s always been drawn to work with students with diverse learning needs. She sings at her church, and she finds herself singing to her students each day, too. They love it. When Payton-Turner moved schools last year, teachers from her prior school would sometimes call her to have her sing over the phone to students. Payton-Turner says she’s happy to. She sees moments of breakthrough for students–whether it’s through music or another teaching method.
“It brings me so much joy – I can’t tell you how much joy when they meet a goal that seemed unattainable,” she says. “Just being able to help these kids attain any goal that they choose, and to be able to connect with them as much as they want to connect with others.”
Payton-Turner loves that, through Reach, she can work to help students reach their goals while reaching her own as well. She’s been able to keep with it, even when she’s faced real personal challenges.
“My mom passed mid-semester last semester. I was close to saying I can’t do it anymore,’” she explains.
But Reach’s staff and faculty were there for her. They gave her extra time to finish work she’d missed, and checked in on her personally.
“The advisers were amazing. The teachers were amazing,” she explains. “They called when they didn’t have to call. And they sent messages to me when they didn’t really have to. And they allowed me to still be able to grieve and do my assignments and continue on.”
Wicks has been struck by how supportive the Reach team is, too. She feels it’s one of the greatest strengths of the program.
“There’s never going to be a time when you feel like ‘I can’t do this,’ that they’re gonna be like, ‘Okay, well, bye, see you later,’” she says. “They keep you accountable, they check in on you, and your professors are going to make sure that you get through it. So I would say, if you’re working in education, and you want to be in education, you’re not going to find a better program than this.”
Wicks is convinced that Reach is not just a great program for her. It’s part of the solution to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis our city and nation face.
“You know, if you want to help the teacher crisis, invest in your paras and your support staff,” she says. “The best way you can support them is to tell them about Reach.”
To learn more about Reach University, visit their website or read our recent article about the program. You can also learn more about NSNO’s efforts to address and increase teacher recruitment and retention in New Orleans and support educators–read about the Allstate Sugar Bowl New Orleans Teacher Community, the New Orleans Teacher Job Board, and our support of other Grow Your Own programs.