Alternative routes: Washougal educators pick a different path to teaching

ESD 112 program helps alleviate teacher shortage

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During the 2016-17 school year, while Cindy Gregory was serving as a classroom teacher and earning her certificate, she said there were moments when she wasn't sure if she could do it all. "I had great family support. That helped a lot."

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “The Road Not Taken,” has been interpreted in numerous ways over the years. However, one could say it’s a fitting description of the different path taken to becoming a teacher for three Washougal employees.

Cindy Gregory and Katie Hofsess are among 17 educators who completed or are working on the Alternative Routes to Certification program. Organized through Education Service District 112, in partnership with area school districts and City University, the two-year grant funds certification for future teachers in areas with the most need, such as special education and English Language Learners programs.

Gregory has worked as a paraeducator and preschool teacher in Washougal since 2002. She heard of the program through a staff email. It aligned perfectly with her three children all being in college at the same time.

“It is very expensive and we don’t get a lot of federal funding because my husband and I both work,” she said. “I always wanted to go back to teaching after my children were done with high school, so this was great timing.”

Gregory also had an advantage: She earned her teaching certificate at Oregon State University years before, so was only required to complete one year of the program.

After an intensive application process, which included a panel interview and 40 other applicants, Gregory received the good news: She had been accepted to the program.

The benefits are twofold — program participants can keep their current job and take weekend classes, and school districts get the perk of having employees who are experienced in a challenging classroom environment.

“These folks don’t have any misconceptions about what it means to be in a special education class,” said Marian Young, human resources director for the Washougal School District. “When someone goes the traditional route, it can sometimes be a bit of a culture shock.”

Additionally, every future teacher is paired with an in-district mentor to help guide them through the process.

“It’s part of the ‘grow your own’ idea,” Young remarked. “We have people who are already a part of the school community.”

Gregory was granted a conditional certificate for the 2016-17 school year, which allowed her to complete her education and first year of teaching in Washougal High School’s life skills classroom.

Special needs students in the program learn things such as hygiene, social skills, computer skills and how to get a job.

It was extremely challenging to be a student and a first-year teacher, but Gregory is grateful she had the opportunity.

“There were definitely some moments,” she said. “But my family was super supportive through all of this. If I had just done school on its own, it would have been easier but now I have my first year of teaching already behind me. It made my educational experience so much better.”

She continued that having her own classroom was “eye opening.”

“Before, I was one of the employees who would receive the emails on policy, now I am the one sending them out,” Gregory said. “There are so many parts and pieces that aren’t seen. I know all teacher roles have a lot of work, but special education has a whole plethora of pieces.”

Hofsess and Gregory became close friends through the process.

Hofsess, a preschool teacher, found out about the program during a Washougal School District job fair. She has a bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral studies, and was able to finish the grant program in one year, similar to Gregory.

“I came to the fair just wondering how I could become a substitute teacher,” she said. “Then I learned more about the grant, and there were only two days left that the application window was open.”

Hofsess figured “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and applied.

She has zero regrets.

“It has been such a great ride,” she said. “I have loved getting to know the community and building relationships.”

Hofsess will begin her teaching career this fall, working in special education at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School.

“This is exactly what I needed to do with my life,” she said. “Here, I am able to give back to the community and have a real impact on my students’ lives.”

Hofsess noted that the best part of the program was its flexibility.

“I was able to substitute teach while I was in school,” she said. “It was a very beneficial way to get to know the school community better and work with other special education teachers.”

Young is pleased that these educators will now take their places as official certified staff for the district.

“Our teacher shortage is largely in special education,” she said. “I am very proud of them for completing the program. They work all week long, then spend their weekends in classes that are in no way trivial. They are filling a great need for us.”