Southern Utah educators, schools already seeing benefits of ‘Grow Your Own Teacher’ program

ST. GEORGEState and local education officials have been grappling with a looming teacher shortage for some time. 

In this April 2021 file photo, Irene Bernal teaches a class of second graders at Paradise Canyon Elementary School, St. George, Utah | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

About 40% of teachers in Utah leave the profession after just five years, and projections indicate teachers educated in the state may comprise less than half of the educator workforce before 2030, according to a 2019 study from Hanover Research.

Since the study was completed, the situation has only grown more difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic has increased stress for teachers while straining the resources of school districts. 

To get ahead of a future labor squeeze, Washington County School District is joining districts across the state in the newly minted Grow Your Own Teacher and School Counselor Pipeline Program, with the first semester of grant recipients beginning or continuing their training just weeks ago.

“This is going to help us have teachers here in our community – people that we know and love that can grow and become those teachers that we need,” said Helene Morse, the district lead for the grant program. “According to statistics, we’re going to face a teacher shortage in the next eight years if it continues to go this way.”

Miriah Wixom is one the local recipients of the grant funds and completing a full-time internship Water Canyon Elementary School, Hildale, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Miriah Wixom, St. George News

Morse said the district is currently working with 10 paraprofessionals working in local schools and 10 school counselors in training. 

Washington County was able to secure a sizable portion of the $9.2 million allocated by the state Legislature, with paraprofessionals seeking teaching certification and students enrolled in school counseling programs eligible to receive up to $12,000 or $14,000 per year, respectively. These funds are awarded to pay for education expenses alone, but can be used for everything from tuition to books to exam fees.

Miriah Wixom is a current student of the University of Utah’s school counseling program and attends classes with other local students at a graduate center in St. George. She said she heard about the grant program through her mother, a fellow educator working at St. George Academy.

“I had originally taken out student loans, but now I don’t have to take out more,” Wixom said. “And I can pay back my other student loans quicker because I’m not paying for school out of pocket. I think it will help out a lot with the teacher shortage and education shortages in general, and help bring more people into education to help future generations.”

As part of the second year of her master’s program, Miriah worked with the district to land an internship working as the school counselor for Water Canyon Elementary. She’s able to shadow other full-time counselors while completing her classes and getting real-world experience.

“I hope to stay in Washington County with the school district and continue on being a counselor at the elementary level,” Wixom said. “Not a lot of places have a school counselor at every elementary school, but here in Washington County we do and it’s great. I think that this grant will continue to allow places in Utah to get the counselors we need.”

The grant program was signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox on March 17. Sponsored by Rep. Jefferson Moss and Sen. Ann Millner of the state Legislature, HB 381 established the grant program as a three-year pilot to see if it would be successful in attracting and retaining Utah-educated teachers and counselors. 

“I have a degree in theater, and I didn’t like that lifestyle so I started working as a paraprofessional,” said Bailee Barnes, a paraprofessional at Legacy Elementary School. “Working as a para(professional) made me realize how much I want to teach, but if I didn’t get this grant, my school load would be so much it would probably take me years to get a degree.”

2017 file photo: Legacy Elementary School, St. George, Utah | Photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

In her day-to-day work, Barnes helps lead small reading groups, oversees a take home library and helps during recess. She said she was grateful to the district and to the state for the opportunity to earn her teaching certification more quickly and affordably.

According to a statement shared by the Washington County School District, the teacher and school counselor pipeline program is especially valuable in Southern Utah where rising costs of living and rapid population growth have contributed to a challenging job market.

A portion of the statement read as follows:

Increased student population growth…is requiring WCSD to build more schools. Now more than ever we need even more teachers to staff them. The sad reality is that paraprofessionals are not well-paid positions, and the cost of further education is high. The availability of financial assistance will allow more interested individuals to complete their education in the counseling and teaching fields.

With the fastest growing population in the United States and the highest birth rate, Utah will likely see an increasing need for well-trained educators as enrollment rises in coming years. 

The teacher and school counselor pipeline program is just starting out, but administrators and prospective educators in Southern Utah are hopeful that the initiative will prove successful and benefit all involved for years to come. 

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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