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Dr. Holly Atkins

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A Saint Leo education program is helping to address the teacher shortage in Florida by partnering with school districts.

Saint Leo University is helping Florida school districts “grow their own” teachers via an innovative program. Through agreements with 19 school systems, paraprofessionals and noncertified school district employees, who have an associate degree, recieve the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from the university. 

The agreements vary in scope, with all providing tuition discounts. In some agreements, Saint Leo will offer classes at a school within the district, while in others, the paraprofessionals will study at one of the university’s Florida education centers and online. 

The new program allows those who work in schools to become teachers in the district where they already are employed. “This is a home-grown approach that is addressing the teacher shortage in Florida,” said Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of Saint Leo’s undergraduate education program. It takes people who are based in the community and allows them to grow, gain a degree, and become teachers. 

“You have roots there,” Atkins said of the school district employees. “You have an understanding of who the students are in the community. That leads to more success for the [school district’s] students, too.”

When district employees consider becoming teachers, the main concerns that emerge are monetary investment, time commitment—both length of the program and demand on their personal schedule—and if they will be supported by their school district and academic institution, said Jessica Starkey, director of Saint Leo’s Jacksonville (FL) Education Center. “Our para-to-pro program addresses each of those concerns.”  

Growing teachers who know the area, people, culture, and lifestyle is beneficial to Florida’s school districts—especially districts in rural areas. “It’s going to help the teachers stick and remain in the districts,” Atkins said. “We don’t want a revolving door of teachers.” 

Tackling Teaching Vacancies
Districts spend time and money recruiting teachers, and this new program will provide a guaranteed pipeline of educators. With the partnerships, districts will “know in spring of 2021, ‘We’re going to have X amount of new teachers,’” said Dr. Tammy Quick, assistant professor of education at the Ocala (FL) Education Center. “They don’t have to go out and recruit.” 

Michele Bily, instructional specialist in human resources for Clay County District Schools agrees. She says the initiative allows the district “to recruit future teachers from a talent pool that has already shown commitment to our students and the district.”  

This home-grown approach to hiring teachers appeals to school officials. The district employees already are involved with the children and the community. “That fits right in with who we are as a university and our core values,” Atkins said of Saint Leo. 

Since Saint Leo already maintains relationships with many of the school districts, the para-to-pro agreements were a natural fit. 

“We have worked with these districts for years, but now they are serious about growing their numbers since there appears to be a shortage of certified teachers in our state,” said Dr. Susan Kinsella, dean of the College of Education and Social Services.

At the Jacksonville Education Center, these partnerships are strengthened by the personal attention education students receive. “My center has been amazing,” said Dr. Alexandra Kanellis, associate chair of undergraduate education. “The students [in the para-to-pro program] know there is a person to help them. We identified roles. I handle the academics, Jessica [Starkey] handles the financials, and the assistant director of admissions helps with all the paperwork. [Education] students know who to go to for help.”

The Hernando County School District is just one district that is pleased to work with Saint Leo. 

The partnerships take down the barriers that have prevented many people from returning to college and pursuing a bachelor’s degree and qualifies them to teach in their own classroom.


“This is a home-grown approach that is addressing the teacher shortage in Florida.”
— Dr. Holly Atkins, chair, Undergraduate Education


“We are excited about this partnership and what it could potentially do for our district’s recruitment and retention efforts,” said Michael Maine, the district’s senior recruiter. Maine is the district’s first senior recruiter, a position created in 2019 to fill frequent teaching vacancies and retain teachers for longer periods.

“By partnering with Saint Leo, we hope to bridge the gap and strengthen our pool of teacher applicants who are ready and prepared to be teachers,” Maine said. “The great thing about the program is that these individuals are already our employees and are already in our classrooms. They have a love for students and in many ways are already heavily assisting the teachers who they serve by helping to boost student achievement. Why not help them with their personal development and future goals of becoming teachers? It is a win-win situation!”

The para-to-pro programs allow the new Saint Leo students to complete their field placements in the school in which they work; however, they must teach in a different classroom to meet the state’s internship requirements. They also must complete their final field placement outside of the school district in which they are employed.

The districts all make a commitment to the students, helping with tuition, allowing the time for classes, and providing health insurance. “The HR staff and the district can say this is a benefit of employment,” Atkins said. “We [the university] provide a flat-rate on tuition, additional professional development opportunities, and additional support for the three state tests.”

Hernando’s Maine considers the para-to-pro partnership with Saint Leo to be a benefit to the district’s employees.  “It is an opportunity for us to create clear pathways for our current employees to move up within the organization,” he said. “If an employee knows that they have an opportunity to increase their influence within an organization and feel valued while doing it, they will stay. It’s all about retention of these great employees.”

School districts identify and recommend employees eligible for admission and provide placement for internships, and other support. “The additional support has been unique to each district,” Starkey said. “Some school districts will provide textbooks, laptops, and financial reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. Many districts also are working to keep participating para-to-pro students paid during their final internship and keep their health benefits.” 

In Clay County, the district collaborated with the Clay Education Foundation to provide computers for each cohort member to ensure they had the necessary technology to complete their degrees, Bily said. 

Helping Florida’s Future Teachers
Saint Leo is working with districts to meet their needs, too. “We listen to what they want,” Kanellis said. “We go to them and say ‘What do you need from us?’ We stay connected to what is going on in education and what districts need. We have to stay current and flexible.”

“We’re flexible enough to make adjustments to the current program and still have the high expectations and standards,” Atkins added.

Some of the new Saint Leo education students have been paraprofessionals for years, Atkins said. “They have a wide array of teaching skills,” she said. “The program builds on that.”

Most are nontraditional-age students, who are juggling families and employed in demanding full-time jobs. “That’s what we specialize in at our centers,” Atkins said of the adult learners. “It’s not a learning curve for Saint Leo to have a mom come in as a student, who is holding down a full-time job and now going back to school full time. That’s who we work with.”

Many paraprofessionals think, “‘I can’t go to college because of time and money,’” Quick added. But the para-to-pro program with Saint Leo is changing that with the tuition discount, and by offering classes at district offices and schools, at nearby Saint Leo centers, and online. 

The partnerships take down the barriers that have prevented many people from returning to college and pursuing a bachelor’s degree and qualifies them to teach in their own classroom. Paraprofessionals complete most of their field placements right in their place of work. Districts then commit to hiring the paraprofessionals upon successful completion of the program. 

The para-to-pro program covers a wide range of employees, Atkins said. “It could be a classroom teacher wanting to take an undergraduate class for recertification or enroll in one of the graduate education programs. It can be someone who is working in the school district on a temporary certificate, who graduated with a non-education degree, but wants to get an education degree. Some districts have included noninstructional staff, who have strong ties to their school—a front-office secretary, for example.” 

The program has provided support for employees “with the hope that they can complete their education and be a lead teacher in a classroom,” said Brenda Troutman, director of instructional personnel for Clay County District Schools. “Many of those enrolled in the program would not have had the opportunity to accomplish this otherwise.” 

The Duval County Public Schools’ partnership with Saint Leo is called the Supporting Talent and Recruiting Teachers (START) program, and it launched in December.

“There was quite a ceremony at the Jacksonville district office welcoming the new cohort,” said Kinsella. “Families were invited and students were met by their superintendent and myself while they learned about Saint Leo University and the expectations of their school district. There is plenty of support for this program from Saint Leo and the school district, so we are certain these students will be successful. There is also the added component of including the families as it is so important to have their support.”

Several of the agreements with Saint Leo require the districts to hire the students once they graduate, pass the Florida General Knowledge Test, and the state certification exam. This will allow those who previously were making minimum wage to begin making a certified teacher’s salary, Kinsella noted. 

The partnership with Saint Leo University allows current Clay County support staff, who hold an associate degree to complete a bachelor’s in education in two years, Bily said. “Upon successful completion of the program, each graduate will be guaranteed a teaching position within the district.”

Collaborating for Strong Teacher Cohorts
“The biggest support system is what they create through their cohort,” Kanellis said of the new education students. “The para-to-pro cohorts come in, and they realize that all the students are feeling the same; they have the same dreams. It’s pretty amazing to see how they keep each other going. They pray together; they have dinner together; they study together.”

Clay County’s collaboration with Saint Leo “has created a strong support system to assist those enrolled, to encourage them through the process, and to simply be their cheerleader when things become tough,” Troutman said. “Clay County is excited to have this new partnership and looks forward to building great teachers for Clay.”

Saint Leo’s commitment to its education students doesn’t end when they walk across the stage at commencement. “The Department of Education tracks and assesses our program based on the performance of our graduates,” Atkins said. “They are evaluated in a large part on the standardized test scores of their students. These are long-term partnerships with our graduates.”