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Sunday, June 16, 2024

UF graduates its first class of teacher apprentices from new state program

New initiative allows students to earn teaching degrees while working, addressing teacher shortages statewide

As a stained glass artist, Richard Belsky knows tools. So when he decided to trade cutting glass for teaching kindergartners, he knew he’d need a new set. 

Now, he’s about to join the six UF graduates from Florida’s first registered teacher apprenticeship program armed with a new toolbox: a master’s in elementary education and a professional teaching certification. 

The program, funded by the Florida Department of Education, is part of an alternative teaching pathway initiative that allows students to remain employed in schools while working toward their degrees and professional certifications.

UF was the only institution to receive funds during the first round of funding for the 2023-24 academic year to design and pioneer an apprenticeship program and model its effectiveness. 

The program is composed of classroom and instruction supports, long-term substitutes and educators with temporary certifications known as paraprofessionals, according to a College of Education news release. It aims to support individuals seeking to advance their careers without having to leave the workforce. 

After 18 years in the stained glass industry, Belsky only joked about attending graduate school. But as a long-term substitute without a professional certification or the ability to leave work for more education, he didn’t feel prepared. 

“I really felt phony,” he said. 

That changed with the apprenticeship program, which was launched after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed 2023 House Bill 1035 last May. Its framework was developed by the Florida Department of Education and UF before the legislation was passed. 

“It gives you the tools to feel like you can handle a classroom,” Belsky said. “I really feel like not only that I can be in a classroom, but I deserve to be in a classroom.”

The program gave Belsky skills and knowledge to be an effective teacher, but it also gave him the professionalism and confidence he needed. He said he knew he was making a positive impact in the classroom, and now he’s on his way to having the credentials to support it.

“I just get choked up thinking about how prepared this journey has made me,” he said. 

Of the nine students who were part of the pilot program, six graduated this spring and three are slated to finish this summer.  

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“These aren’t traditional UF students, so this is just another avenue that folks can see an opportunity to get a degree at the University of Florida and become a teacher,” said Elayne Colón, associate dean for Academic & Student Affairs.

Colón said the program is not only addressing the teacher shortage but also providing districts with the opportunity to capitalize on the existing talent within their schools. 

Alachua County, Marion County and P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School were the school district partners that hosted teacher apprentices, but expansion of the program to all Florida school districts in the future is possible, Colón said. 

“They’re really growing their own talent and growing their own cadre of professional teachers from those that are already living in their community,” she said. “That’s the goal, to make it accessible to anyone in the state who would like a degree from the University of Florida and wants to go into the teaching profession.”

Because Belsky already had a bachelor’s degree, he and several other students in the program were also enrolled in UF’s Site-based Implementation of Teacher Education program (SITE), a yearlong master’s program that emphasizes learning based on interactive in-classroom experiences rather than traditional instruction. 

The combination of both programs allowed him to get a master’s and a professional certification at the same time, while also remaining employed as a kindergarten teacher at Stephen Foster Elementary. 

SITE Program Coordinator Rochelle Warm said she received tremendous positive feedback.

“It was a really wonderful experience for the students,” she said. “They felt that they learned so much about teaching.” 

Rebekah Mascari is another teacher apprentice who will graduate with Belsky this summer. She began her teaching journey as a paraprofessional and is now working as an ESE teacher at Marjorie K. Rawlings Elementary. 

She said the program gave her a toolbelt that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional school setting. 

“Nothing can prepare you for being in a classroom besides being in a classroom,” she said. “I’ve learned more through the program and on the job because there’s nobody there holding your hand.”

Like Belsky, Mascari never thought about getting a master’s before, but now she’s considering a doctorate in special education. 

“That’s what UF does to you, they make you want to learn more,” she said.

Many more teachers and school staff members will be able to advance their education and careers in the coming months. House Bill 5001, passed in March, allocated $5 million in state funds to help schools keep their staff and advance them to professional teaching roles. While the pilot master’s apprenticeship program at UF was a pathway built into two pre-existing graduate programs — SITE and a secondary teacher preparation program — the funds will be used to develop an entirely separate but similar program called the Grow Your Own Teacher Apprenticeship.

UF and nine other universities in the state received funds during the second round of funding through the Pathways to Career Opportunities Grow Your Own Teacher Grant for 2023-24, according to a news release from the governor’s office. Future teaching apprenticeship programs will be open to associate’s degree holders, allowing more than 200 teachers to become credentialed each year, the news release said.

Belsky said he couldn’t imagine being one of the only people to ever have this kind of teaching experience. 

“My whole life is different now,” Belsky said. “I just don’t understand how you can learn to be a teacher any other way.”

Contact Grace McClung at Follow her on X @gracenmcclung.

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Grace McClung

Grace McClung is a third-year journalism major and the graduate & professional school reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, Grace can be found running, going to the beach and writing poetry.

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