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Opinion: Investing in teacher preparation can transform El Paso's education system - El Paso Matters

By Amy O’Rourke and Stephanie Otero

Teachers are the backbone of our education system, as they play a key role in driving student outcomes and preparing students for college and careers. If El Paso leaders want to prepare all students in El Paso County for college success and give them the best education possible, then we must invest in teachers. This must begin early on, even before a new teacher steps into the classroom for the very first time.

Amy O’Rourke

In 2018-2019, there were almost 12,000 teachers in our region; 720 of those were new hires who had no previous teaching experience. With the appropriate, targeted support and coaching, those teachers hone their skills over several years and become effective teachers; but the students in their classrooms that first or even second year will likely experience learning gaps that become increasingly difficult to make up. Without properly training our future teachers, we are at a huge disadvantage as we attempt to close persistent attainment gaps in our region. 

Much like a residency program in the medical field, the UTEP Miner Teacher Residency Program seeks to strengthen teacher preparation by giving aspiring teachers the hands-on experience, coaching, and feedback they need within a classroom setting so they can transform theory into practice. In other words, aspiring teachers aren’t just reading and taking exams about lesson planning, instructional strategies, or classroom management — they are practicing these concepts in a real classroom for ten months under the mentorship of experienced educators and UTEP faculty. 

Stephanie Otero

During the program’s pilot year in 2019-2020, 19 teacher candidates completed the residency within El Paso and Socorro Independent School Districts. This summer, a second cohort of 60 residents concluded their experience within El Paso, Socorro, and Ysleta ISDs, and next year there will be more than 80 residents across these three districts. That is over 150 new teachers trained here locally who will enter the teaching workforce ready on day one to help their students thrive.

In the past three years, our region has already seen a positive impact. Principals and mentor teachers at El Paso, Socorro, and Ysleta ISDs all comment on the caliber of teachers that are coming out of the residency program, and based on the residents’ end-of-year evaluations, these new teachers are already teaching at a level usually only reached by veteran teachers. School districts across Texas have even reached out to understand how they can replicate the residency program in their regions.

For UTEP to expand the residency program to include all undergraduate and graduate teacher candidates moving forward, El Paso will need to build on the leadership and investments that have made this transformational program possible.

Matching funds from Workforce Solutions Borderplex and the Brown Family Foundation allowed us to provide living stipends to residents, totaling over $650,000 in philanthropic support. The stipends are critical to the success of this program. Over and over we hear from residents that they would not have been able to complete such an immersive and demanding program for 10 months without the financial support that the stipends provide; they would have had to work nights and/or weekends to make ends meet or not participate in the residency at all. 

Philanthropy, however, cannot be the only source for the stipends. We are grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the technical assistance needed for UTEP, El Paso ISD, and Socorro ISD to develop a plan for these districts to sustainably cover the cost of the stipends without increasing their budgets. Our hope is that Ysleta and other districts in our region will undergo similar sustainability planning this coming year, so that as the residency program grows, more residents can continue to receive the financial support needed to participate. 

We want to applaud UTEP and our local school districts for their leadership and investment in this gamechanger. Leaders across the region are thinking outside the box and doing the difficult but necessary work to take teacher preparation to the next level in our region. We hope school districts will double down on this partnership and their commitment to future teachers in the region. 

Amy O’Rourke, Choose to Excel director at the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, and Stephanie Otero, vice president of operations at the El Paso Community Foundation, serve as co-chairs of the Teacher Pipeline Taskforce, a collaboration between local school districts, UTEP, EPCC, and community non-profits that aims to recruit, prepare, and retain high-quality teachers in schools across the El Paso region.

Cover photo: Nineteen teacher candidates completed residencies in El Paso and Socorro schools in the 2019-2020 school year. (Photo courtesy of Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development)

Disclosure: The El Paso Community Foundation and Amy O’Rourke are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.