Tomorrow’s Teachers Are Already Working in Schools – Reach University Helps Support Staff Earn Bachelor’s Degrees and Become Classroom Educators

“We are wringing our hands in this country everywhere about where we are going to find the next generation of teachers–-and they are already there,” says Joe E. Ross, President of Reach University. “Most of them are paraprofessionals, sometimes they are classroom aides, many are coaches and other employees,” he explains. 

Across the country, applications to traditional teacher preparation programs have plummeted. In order to help our schools address this trend, NSNO committed funding through a federal SEED grant to help create a longer “runway” into the profession, and to help recruit and prepare teachers from our very own community. Some of our partners for this are local high schools and networks, like KIPP New Orleans Schools, Warren Easton Charter High School, and McDonogh 35 High School.

Another key partner is Reach University. Reach looks to adults already in school buildings–like paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, coaches, or support staff–who often play a huge role in children’s lives. These team members have strong relationships with students and are integral parts of the school community. Some may want to be classroom teachers, and they’d be powerful ones–but they don’t yet have the college degree they need to become one.

Joe E. Ross (Photo Credit: Reach University)

Ross and his team believe that can, and must change. Reach University is built to help school support staff members earn the bachelor’s degree they need to teach. Their courses are “job-embedded,” which means students get credit for learning on the job, and additional coursework is flexible, online, and offered on evenings and weekends. Thanks to federal grants and financial aid, it costs just $75 a month for books, fees, and materials for each person who enrolls. Depending on whether if students have existing credit or an associate’s degree, they can graduate with their bachelor’s degree in two to four years. They can also earn an elementary education teaching certification through Reach, or move on to one of the strong local teacher certification providers in our area, like Xavier University, Tulane University, or TeachNOLA. 

There are nearly 600 students enrolled with Reach across Louisiana, but the university has only recently expanded to recruit students in New Orleans. They started with 41 educators in New Orleans last year, largely at FirstLine Schools and Crescent City Schools. Now, they hope to enroll 150 future educators next year from across the city’s schools and networks.  

Because all of Reach’s students are preparing to be educators, every university class is focused on teaching as well as content. Math classes aren’t just about algebra, for instance, but how algebra is best taught. Students then practice those techniques in their day-to-day jobs. Often, they coordinate with teachers and principals to pull small groups of students for additional tutoring. 

Reach’s website welcomes applicants 

Reach professors understand the challenges and opportunities their students face. Every single one has been a K-12 teacher themselves. 

Kimberly Eckert is the Dean of Undergraduate Studies for Reach and based in Louisiana. “We are teachers, first and foremost, on this faculty,” she explains. “I only hire people who have taught before in Pre-K-12 and who have shown impact. So a lot of our people are award-winning teachers.” 

Kimberly Eckert (Photo credit: Reach University)

That’s important, she says, because many people that come to Reach are doing great work with students, but may have had gaps in their own K-12 education, so they have a lot of content to cover before they can teach effectively. 

“Some of our people were failed by K-12 education the first time around,” says Eckert. But that doesn’t deter her or her team. 

“It doesn’t matter if college didn’t work for you 20 years ago. It doesn’t matter if you had a really bad experience and you hate math and you’re ‘bad at it.’ Let us show you the power of great teaching – because we want you to be a great teacher, and we want you to see students as opportunities and not problems.”

Reach has also been thoughtful about the racial diversity of its staff. 

“If you look at our faculty, it is incredibly racially diverse – diverse in a number of ways, and that’s super intentional,” she says, so Reach’s students “see individuals of color in positions of knowledge and scholarship and power.” 

Eckert and a current Reach candidate (Photo credit: Reach University)

Reach’s students then become those models for their own students. Eckert tells the story of an educator who had been a janitor for a decade but had long wanted to be a classroom teacher. She’d been building strong relationships with students–often the ones who’d been sent out of class for acting up. She’d help them with their homework. 

“She ended up doing so much homework,” Eckert says,  “that she was like, ‘I’ve got to be in the classroom.’” 

So she signed up for Reach. Today, through Reach, she’s both serving as Head Custodian in her district and spending fifteen hours each week in the classroom, where she practices her teaching technique and moves toward her lifelong dream as an educator. 

Eckert says that Reach is for educators like her. 

“It’s for people who have been overlooked. We have bus drivers who have amazing rapport with students. We have some secretaries…they had to make these tough choices between school and work,” early in their career,  she explains. They chose to start working instead of going to college. Now, they’ve got a second chance, and they no longer have to forgo a job to get a degree. 

Reach’s “learn on the job” model is successful in part because the university partners closely with schools and charter networks. Schools value Reach’s hands-on support. Every Reach student has a dedicated advisor through Reach, and a larger community of Reach professors and their own colleagues to support their student teaching. 

Ross says that schools and networks are thrilled when they learn about the program. They know their paras and school staff have so much potential to be the teachers they desperately need. 

“We often hear people say, ‘we’ve been looking for this,’” Ross says. 

If you or someone you know might be a good fit for Reach University, we’d love to talk to you. You can email NSNO’s liaison to Reach, You can also join Reach for an Info Session on 4/27. If you’re already ready to apply, click here.

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