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An Austin-area school district is struggling to find teachers, so it's going to train its own

A person stands in front of a circular table talking to five people who are sitting. In the background, more people sit at tables
Kurt Mogonye
Hutto ISD
Hutto ISD Assistant Superintendent of HR Cara Malone speaks with attendees at an information session last month about the district's new teacher apprenticeship program.

It's hard for Jaclyn Valdez to say what she likes best about working with kids because, well, she likes all of it. But it's especially important to her that students know she has their backs.

"I love being able to get them to feel like they can trust that I'm there for them," she said. "I'm playing a role in their life to help them grow — to help them be successful."

Valdez spent more than two decades in child development before switching to working with elementary school students. She's now an instructional aide at a Hutto ISD elementary school, but she's considering applying for a K-12 apprenticeship program the district has launched to help people become full-time teachers.

"I'm very much a hands-on learner and so having something like this apprenticeship is fantastic, cause it's like I can earn an income and my degree and actually be with kids," she said.

"Why do people have to make those choices? Why can't we bring work and school together and help train people for what they want to do?"
Hutto ISD Assistant Superintendent of HR Cara Malone

Hutto ISD Assistant Superintendent of HR Cara Malone said she hopes the program's one-two punch of on-the-job training and a tuition-free bachelor's degree helps dismantle barriers people might face when considering a job in education.

"Why do people have to make those choices? Why can't we bring work and school together and help train people for what they want to do?" she said.

Malone said increasing the number of teachers in the pipeline is important for Hutto ISD, one of the fastest growing school districts in Central Texas. She said normally the district has 15 to 20 vacancies throughout the school year.

"As a fast-growth district, we constantly have to be thinking of ways to bring people," she said.

That's a tall order in Texas, where the percentage of teachers leaving the field has increased during the last three school years. Nationwide, the number of people interested in becoming teachers has also been trending down for more than a decade.

So, Hutto ISD has been getting creative to increase its workforce. Beside the apprenticeship program, the district also offers a residency program for student teachers, a program where two people can share one job and a program to identify potential teachers from among the students.

"We can't just sit around and say, 'Oh, we have a teacher shortage.' We have to take action. We have to do something," Malone said. "We need people with great skills to be able to help our kids … and that's an investment that will never let us down."

Hutto ISD Superintendent Raúl Peña said the apprenticeship program may help the district attract people who are interested in education but don't see a clear path to a career in the field.

"That's the exciting part of having this apprenticeship program is to fulfill that need," he said, "to bring in people who have that calling to be a teacher and fill a need for us as well."

An 'opportunity problem'

Valdez wasn't the only one interested in the apprenticeship program. About 100 people attended an information session at the district's 9th Grade Center last month. (Another 90 or so attended a virtual session.)

Potential applicants were greeted by rows of orange-frosted sugar cookies shaped like hippos — the district's ubiquitous mascot. It wasn't long before the cookie supply had dwindled and the giant room was nearly full.

Malone said she met people that night who had traveled from other cities just to learn about the initiative.

"We had someone from Houston, someone from San Antonio and someone from College Station," she said. “One lady had driven to find out about it for her son.”

Looking out at the faces of so many people interested in teaching was heartening for her.

"I thought, 'Who says people don’t want to be a teacher, because they do!'" she said. "And my conclusion of the night was: We don't have a problem with people going into teaching; we have an opportunity problem."

Dozens of people sit or stand around circular tables in a large room with shiny floors within Hutto ISD's 9th Grade Center.
Kurt Mogonye
Hutto ISD
Nearly 100 people attended the information about the teacher apprenticeship program Hutto ISD is launching during the next school year.

Malone said the teacher apprenticeship program is a way to make the profession accessible to more people. For one thing, the district will cover tuition costs for participants who are starting or need to complete a bachelor's degree. The coursework for that degree will also be completed online.

"We won't have anybody going to any face-to-face courses and that's just part of making it work for them," she said.

The length of the program varies based on how many college hours someone has earned. A person with fewer than 30 hours can expect the apprenticeship to last about four years. The apprenticeship may last just one year for someone close to finishing college.

While apprentices will be working on their degrees remotely, they will be working in Hutto ISD classrooms. They'll be full-time employees, meaning they'll get a salary, health insurance and retirement benefits.

Malone said apprentices are required to work in the district for three years after finishing the program.

"It is a big investment for us, so we want people to stay," she said.

The district will pair apprentices with certified teachers to help them learn the ropes. A study Gov. Greg Abbott commissioned on teacher vacancies recommended the state invest more in on-the-job mentorship programs to train and retain educators. But Democrat- and Republican-backed bills to help pay for these types of programs didn't make it out of the Texas Legislature last year.

Malone said it's important for families to know apprentices will be working under the guidance of a teacher.

"And when [apprentices] do become certified teachers and they have their own classroom, I think our parents can be assured that they’re going to truly be ready," she said.

A federal initiative

Hutto ISD is one of six districts in the state offering the apprenticeship program. Brazosport ISD, near Houston, was the first district in Texas to offer it.

"Altogether, we truly believe we'll have 300 to 400 brand-new people in the process of becoming teachers," Malone said. “And I know there is not a university out there that is getting 300 to 400 new candidates who are wanting to be teachers."

The program is part of a federal initiative to increase the number of apprenticeships for teachers nationwide.

Dudley Light, regional director for the Department of Labor's Office of Apprenticeship, said the writing had been on the wall for a while that the teacher pipeline was in trouble.

"We saw the need coming a number of years ago with the lack of progress being made in teacher pay," he said. "COVID had a lot to do with it. Politics has a lot to do with it, unfortunately. It’s not as desirable of an occupation as it was 20 years ago."

"Having something like this apprenticeship is fantastic, because I can earn an income and my degree and actually be with kids and be amongst other teachers."
Jaclyn Valdez, applicant

Light said apprenticeships are a good way to train future teachers because they allow people to "earn and learn" on the job and they historically increase retention rates. He said districts also see the benefits of training their own workforces.

"It presents the individual school district more opportunity to train them to their specific needs and requirements and not come out of more of a generic system," he said.

Valdez, for her part, appreciates that Hutto ISD is giving aspiring teachers the chance to get hands-on learning because that's how she learns best.

"Having something like this apprenticeship is fantastic, because I can earn an income and my degree and actually be with kids and be amongst other teachers," she said.

But it's also a big commitment — one Valdez wasn't sure she was ready to make because she's balancing two jobs and a family.

"I definitely have teachers that are doing the whole, 'Let's do the pros and cons of this and how this would benefit [you]," she said.

The pros ultimately outweighed the cons and Valdez ended up applying by the March 1 deadline. So did 95 other people — all interested in the 50 or so apprenticeship positions the district has available for the start of the next school year.

Malone said if someone is not initially selected they'll go into an applicant pool and could be selected in the future. She added she hopes Hutto ISD can help lead the way when it comes to creative solutions to teacher shortages.

"I think when we have the opportunity to do something that helps the profession and that helps people, we know that we’re doing something right," she said.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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