At the end of July, a group of nearly 90 paraprofessionals and 40 experienced teachers from schools across South Dakota gathered in Pierre, South Dakota 's capital. They were participating in an orientation for the new South Dakota Teacher Apprenticeship Pathway (SDTAP), which offers paraprofessionals an opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree in elementary education, special education, or secondary education while continuing to work in South Dakota classrooms. Experienced teachers will serve as mentors to the paraprofessionals, supporting them as they complete the program and earn their teaching certifications. South Dakota hopes to hire these 90 paraprofessionals as teachers of record after they complete the two-year program—sooner for those who already have prior college credits. In a state where many schools are seeing greater numbers of open teaching positions and receiving fewer applications to fill them, SDTAP couldn't launch soon enough.
While addressing teacher shortages nationwide may well be a marathon, launching SDTAP has been something of a sprint. Just last fall, Dr. David DeJong, dean of Dakota State University's (DSU) College of Education, applied for a grant from the South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation (DLR) to establish the registered apprenticeship program. Since that time, DSU, along with DLR, the South Dakota Department of Education (DOE), Northern State University (NSU), and the South Dakota Board of Regents have worked together to design and implement the program. The pilot is currently funded for two years. The participating agencies and institutions are seeking funding to sustain the program as a permanent pathway into teaching in South Dakota.
Paraprofessionals will begin their coursework this fall. As part of their apprenticeships, the pilot group will receive one-on-one support from mentors based in their school district and group mentoring from a university advisor. Brenna Clites, a paraprofessional beginning the teacher apprenticeship program, shared that the program "…was the push that I needed. I've been contemplating going back to school for the last five years, but I was scared. This made me a little less scared." Her mentor teacher, Sarah Jacobson, is equally enthusiastic: "[I'm excited to] watch her grow as an educator. She already has so many wonderful things going."
As part of the Partnership for Strengthening the Teacher Pipeline in South Dakota to Alleviate Teacher Shortages, REL Central is collaborating with DOE, DLR, DSU, NSU, and two statewide organizations, Technology & Innovation in Education and Educators Rising, to support their use of research evidence and data as they design, implement, and refine the apprenticeship program over time. While the state agencies and institutions had been working to identify opportunities to address the teacher shortages in South Dakota, data played a pivotal role in accelerating and intensifying their work together on SDTAP. DOE and DSU had received anecdotal reports from principals and superintendents about interest in a pathway to teaching for paraprofessionals, but there was little data from paraprofessionals to gauge how widespread this demand was. With support from REL Central in a quick turnaround project, the partners developed and administered a statewide survey of paraprofessionals in Spring 2023 to gauge their interest in a pathway to teaching certification.
The results were compelling. More than 600 paraprofessionals from across the state responded, and more than 85 percent of them reported being interested in pursuing teacher certification. The survey data gave REL Central's partners in South Dakota confidence that they had identified a sizable group of future teachers to help alleviate their teacher shortage—future teachers who are already working in South Dakota classrooms. Our partners used these data to demonstrate the statewide interest in the apprenticeship program, which resulted in additional funding to expand the program from 60 to 90 apprentices and open the program up to paraprofessionals across the state, rather than piloting in a few districts. In addition, our partners are using the survey results to apply for additional funds to support the program beyond the pilot.
In addition to supporting our partners with the statewide paraprofessional survey, REL Central summarized relevant research evidence on the components of effective mentoring programs to inform the design of the pilot's mentoring component. REL Central will support the pilot and inform improvements to the mentoring program in its first year by helping partners collect and analyze data from participating apprentices and mentors. These data are intended to identify opportunities to refine the mentoring component over time to better meet apprentices' needs and the pilot program's goals. REL Central will also support the partners as they develop a data infrastructure for tracking program implementation and outcomes, which is expected to help identify areas for further improvement and raise awareness throughout the state—and beyond!—about the program's role in alleviating the state's teacher shortage.