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Westside expands its 'grow our own' programs to address staff shortages

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Sixteen paraprofessionals at the Westside Community Schools are at the start of a new chapter in their careers: They are on the road to becoming teachers.

The employees are receiving free tuition from Midland University to complete a two-year program that will give them a teaching degree with an optional endorsement. Westside announced the program in February, and the cohort began its first classes in May.

The effort is just one of the several initiatives Westside is working on to address a continuing staff shortage in the education field.

"When I was interviewing for this position a year and a half ago, we knew that we were on the precipice of a possible teacher shortage," said Andrea Haynes, Westside's assistant superintendent of human resources and operations. "One of the things that our leadership team, our principals, our school board is really committed to is looking at 'growing our own' — a multifaceted, multiprong approach."

The district is in the beginning stages of creating some programs while launching others to accomplish that goal. Haynes said helping people already involved in the Westside community obtain a degree or certification can boost staff numbers.

With more Omaha-area educators leaving their districts this year, some schools around the metro area are struggling to fill a variety of open positions — a challenge that has been occurring for years but was exacerbated by the pandemic. 

"We have a lot of research supporting that 'growing your own' is a viable process for addressing shortages," Haynes said.

The district's partnership with Midland University, known as the Teacher Career Ladder Program, aims to give Westside paraprofessionals degrees to work hard-to-fill positions, such as special education or high school family and consumer sciences. In exchange for free tuition, the selected staff have to work in the district for a minimum of five years following program completion.

The program is being funded by donors and the district, with a goal of selecting a group of staff each year over the next four years. The cost of this year's group will be around $405,000, said Melanie Connolly, director of human resources and business.

District officials also want to turn to the military community to recruit more teachers. Westside currently has two people piloting a program with the U.S. Department of Defense called SkillBridge, which helps service members get the credentials they need for a civilian job.

"I started my career teaching and coaching at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on the military base. And some of our country's most impressive men and women are in the military or have been in the military, and they can retire at a young age," said Mike Lucas, Westside's superintendent. "We're super excited about that piece."

Another program in discussion would focus on recruiting and retaining classified staff. The district wants to help specific groups of classified staff obtain certifications to accelerate their careers. 

Haynes said the initiative includes paraprofessionals, nutrition services, building services, administrative assistants and others.

"We have so many classified staff here who have made a really strong commitment to us in the way they help us run our district every day," Haynes said. "So we're looking at doing the same sort of 'growing them' as well, offering them certificates and building new grounds through Metro Community College."

Two people are piloting this program right now. Haynes said one of them is getting a grounds certification, which will decrease the district's reliance on outside contractors for certain projects.

District officials said they hope other schools in Nebraska use Westside's programs as starting points to implement something similar. Haynes said the district has already partnered with the Papillion La Vista and the Millard districts and Nelson Mandela Elementary to offer them spots in the Teacher Career Ladder Program. The Omaha school district has had a similar program for many years.

Smaller districts have reached out to Haynes and said they intend to join together to implement a similar program, she said. 

Deborah Neary, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Education, said she supported the district's efforts to address staff shortages in education.

"I hope this template does filter across the state because it's so urgent. I want you to know that we are trying to do what we can to support you," she said to Westside officials. "We are really committed to working quickly in order to help facilitate that pathway to certification more efficiently. But this is huge."

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