Brazosport ISD is training its own teachers. The program might become a model for other Texas schools.
The small district’s apprenticeship program lets aspiring teachers earn a bachelor’s degree and teacher certification at no cost. In return, participants must work at the district for at least three years. Observers hope state lawmakers will use the program as a model for legislation.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The Brazosport Independent School District is always in need of more teachers — and for a long time, it wasn’t able to find enough.
Located about 60 miles south of Houston, the 11,500-student district doesn’t have a big college of education nearby to churn out new teachers. It’s hard to compete with larger districts in the region for talent or convince educators to move to the small town of Clute, where Brazosport ISD is based. Over time, classroom sizes grew as vacancies stayed open.
That’s why the district created its own pipeline. Last August, it launched a unique “teacher apprenticeship” program that allows aspiring teachers to earn a bachelor’s degree and teacher certification — at no cost. In return, the teachers have to work in the district for at least three years. The plan includes a paid residency program in which apprentices are paired with a teacher mentor and work with them in a classroom for a full school year.
“When the first bell rings for Brazosport ISD next [school] year for these folks, they’re going to be considered a rookie, but they’re not a rookie. We say it's not Day 1. It's actually Day 181 for our teacher residents,” said Becky Hampton, a senior education specialist working with the district.
Public education advocates are following the program with high hopes, believing it could become a blueprint for other Texas districts as they look for ways to stem the state’s critical teacher shortage.
Kristi Kirschner, chief human resource officer at Brazosport ISD, said the program started with 67 apprentices ranging from high school students with less than 30 college hours to participants with bachelor’s degrees.
Twenty-five teachers graduated from the program in time for the upcoming school year. Without these homegrown teachers, the district would have had to hire close to 60 teachers — now it needs to find just 35 more.
“It’s something we smile about often,” Hampton said.
About 42% of those participating in the program this past school year were already district employees like warehouse workers or teacher aides. Apprentices are paid anywhere between $19,000 to $30,000 a year — depending on how far along they are in the program — and have their college tuition and fees paid for as a result of a partnership with Brazosport College and Inspire Texas, a teacher certification program. All of the participants are from the area.
The district loses nearly 130 teachers at the end of every school year and has a hard time staffing bilingual and special education teachers. But with this apprenticeship program, Kirschner said the district can train new teachers to fill roles that have been historically hard to staff.
There are several other residency programs across the state, but most are partnerships between districts and universities in which students work in a classroom only during their last semester or year of college. What makes the Brazosport ISD program unique is that high school students can start the process of becoming teachers while still in school and, in some cases, it can be much more affordable than earning a four-year college degree.
Texas’ teacher shortage crisis
Teacher preparation has been in the spotlight since last year as Texas looks for better ways to recruit and retain educators.
Texas has struggled to retain teachers year after year, and it got worse after the pandemic. Health and safety were top concerns for teachers, and their salaries largely stagnated while basic necessities got more expensive. More kids are in each school classroom as a result; in some cases, children are spending days without a teacher.
A task force formed last year by Gov. Greg Abbott to study the root causes of the state’s teacher shortage recommended that the state fund programs like the one Brazosport ISD is running.
“Research shows that teacher residency models increase teacher retention, effectively place teachers in hard-to-staff areas, and positively impact student outcomes,” the task force report said.
According to the National Center for Teacher Residencies, 86% of teachers who go through such programs are still teaching in the same school after three years of employment.
These residency programs help teachers stay in the profession longer because participants are usually paired with a mentor to guide them and, in most cases, they gain a deeper understanding of what challenges teachers face and how to overcome them, according to the Learning Policy Institute. The schools that employ them also have a chance to prepare them directly, the institute said.
“Residencies are a promising long-term solution to meeting district hiring needs, allowing districts to play a direct role in training their future workforce,” a Learning Policy Institute report says.
A failed legislative effort
During the Texas Legislature’s regular session this year, lawmakers tried passing a teacher preparation bill that would’ve given school districts funds to establish programs like Brazosport ISD’s. Most notably, House Bill 11, authored by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, would have partially funded residency programs and offered teachers a slew of other incentives like free pre-K for their own children. Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have also funded similar programs.
But both bills failed after political fallouts between the Texas House and Senate. SB 9 failed after House Democrats stuffed their version of the bill with some of their priorities, like better pay for bus drivers and increases to school funding. HB 11 never made it out of a Senate committee.
“It’s unfortunate that many of the best approaches to address record teacher vacancies, including paid residency pathways, got stuck in the red zone at the end of the regular legislative session,” said Jonathan Feinstein, state director for Texas at The Education Trust.
“These strategic investments have support in both chambers and are urgently needed to prepare and keep highly qualified teachers in our classrooms.”
To pay for its apprenticeship program, Brazosport ISD freed up money in its budget, got financial help from the nearby community college and applied for grants to make up the rest. But finding the resources to establish such a program might not be as easy for other school districts across the state that are looking to fix their own teaching shortage woes.
With Abbott expected to announce a special session on education soon, educators and school administrators are hopeful that lawmakers will not only raise teacher wages but also provide funding to establish similar residency programs.
Dutton said he plans to file a bill similar to HB 11 and will name it after Tamoria Jones, a staffer in his office who recently died and had a fiery passion for education.
Creighton also plans to include language from his earlier teacher preparation bill into whatever public education package the Senate ends up proposing.
Kirschner said lawmakers should incentivize districts to start their own residency programs.
“We can’t solve the [state’s teacher shortage] here in Brazosport ISD,” she said. “But we do think that we have a really great solution that a lot of school districts are wanting to understand and going ‘how can they do this?’”
Dreams and second chances
For some participants of Brazosport ISD’s program, the apprenticeship has provided them with a chance to pursue a long-held dream.
Jennifer Martinez said going back to college wasn’t in her plans until she heard about Brazosport ISD’s program. She had been a teaching assistant at the district for the last five years but never thought she’d one day be leading the classroom.
Martinez teared up when talking about the opportunity the district gave her. She’ll be a full-time teacher in two years — and have more financial flexibility because of it.
She knows being a teacher in Texas might mean being underpaid — and in some cases, underappreciated — but that didn’t stop her from pursuing a place in the profession. For her, knowing she can have an impact on kids makes up for everything else.
“The kids love being there with you and make you feel like you’re worth a million bucks,” Martinez said.
Cody Scarborough, another aspiring teacher, has just finished his yearlong residency and will lead his own classroom in the upcoming school year. He said he would not have become a teacher if it weren’t for the free tuition and support that Brazosport ISD’s program offered. Scarborough said he’s been able to learn about different methods of teaching from his mentor and fellow cohort members.
“In Texas, apprenticeship programs are growing and people are seeing what’s happening at other school districts and trying to learn and grow,” Scarborough said. “This is the future.”
Alexis Burse, an apprentice who still has a year left, was a stay-at-home mom who could not afford to go back to college for a teaching degree. She said the program gave her a second chance at becoming a teacher.
“I feel like I’m almost to the point where I feel secure, where I can just kind of just breathe and know I will always have a good career,” she said. “Teachers are going nowhere.”
Disclosure: Brazosport College and Education Trust have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Join us for conversations that matter with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23.
Texans need truth. Help us report it.
Independent Texas reporting needs your support. The Texas Tribune delivers fact-based journalism for Texans, by Texans — and our community of members, the readers who donate, make our work possible. Help us bring you and millions of others in-depth news and information. Will you support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation of any amount?