Schools using statewide initiative to train new, local teachers 

February 1, 2024

Schools using statewide initiative to train new, local teachers

West Shore School News is a presentation of West Shore Educational Service District in partnership with Mason County Press and Oceana County Press.

Story and photos by Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

A new statewide initiative is giving 900 aspiring teachers an opportunity to earn certification with no debt. Talent Together was launched last fall as a collaborative of 39 Michigan intermediate school districts. The program is now expanded to include all 56 intermediate school districts.

Within the West Shore Educational Service District, which encompasses Mason, Lake, and Oceana counties, 21 people are currently enrolled in the program which aims to create new routes for budding teachers of all education levels, including those who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree.

Talent Together offers pathways into the classroom for candidates at any point in their own educational journey, including opportunities for candidates without any credits towards a bachelor’s degree, some credits towards a degree or those with bachelor’s degrees to earn initial certification. Additionally, Talent Together offers options for candidates who hold valid Michigan teaching certificates to add endorsements to their existing certificates. To date, in the first semester of operation, the program has saved teacher candidates over $8.5 million in tuition and fees.

Michigan’s teacher pipeline has been challenged in recent years, exacerbated by the impact of the COVID pandemic. State data shows that from 2008 to 2016, enrollment in teacher preparation programs fell by more than 66 percent, and during that period, Michigan also led the nation in attrition from those programs. Now, many teachers’ licenses are classified by the Michigan Department of Education as “high needs,” including special education, early childhood, elementary, and secondary math and science.

Kristie Stumbrie, Mason County Eastern

Talent Together uses apprenticeships to develop educators who are newly recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor, officials said. Candidates who are seeking certification are required to meet federal apprenticeship guidelines, which means at least one year of “practice” in classrooms and fully paid at a competitive wage. Apprentices are paid 80% of the wages of a beginning teacher along with health care benefits. School districts are reimbursed by the state for apprentices’ salaries and benefits, along with the supervising teacher’s stipend.

The program is funded through $66.3 million appropriated from the state legislature.

This program has the potential to bring a number of quality teacher candidates to schools across the ESD,” said Dr. Jason Jeffrey, superintendent of the West Shore ESD. “It has a unique advantage because it targets individuals currently living in our communities and working in our schools.”

Talent Together participants are required to commit to teaching in their host school or district for at least five years. Participants who successfully complete all coursework and other program requirements are guaranteed a teaching position. If a position is not available in a participant’s host school or district, the participant will be eligible for teaching positions at other Talent Together districts.

Backgrounds and education levels of the 21 local participants vary. Some students already have bachelor’s degrees and are working towards master’s degrees. They are already in an apprenticeship with a full time teacher and are expected to receive certification by the end of the school year. Others are at various levels in undergraduate studies and are working in various capacities at their school districts; many are currently paraprofessionals.

According to its website, Talent Together is currently partnered with 10 post-secondary institutions, including: Adrian College, Alma College, Aquinas College, Central Michigan University, Davenport College, Degree Forward, Lake Superior State University, Northern Michigan University, University of Michigan – Flint, and Western Michigan University. However, more institutions, including Adrian College and Concordia University Ann Arbor, have been added to the program.

Kristie Strumbie, left, and Sherie Coleman, MCE

Kristie Stumbrie is a Talent Together participant who is currently enrolled in a master’s degree program at Davenport College. She is currently an apprentice in a fifth grade classroom at Mason County Eastern Elementary School, under the supervision of teacher Sherie Coleman.

Strumbie, who has an associate degree from West Shore Community College and a bachelor’s degree in visual communications and graphic design from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, has worked at MCE in various paraprofessional and substitute teaching positions for 10 years.

Originally from Irons, and a graduate of Brethren High School, Strumbie lived in Grand Rapids after college before moving to Custer, her husband’s hometown.

“I’ve worked in various jobs over the years, from graphic design to retail management,” Strumbie said. “When my oldest son was born, I stayed at home to raise my children. When my oldest started attending school at MCE, I decided to start working at the school.”

Her sons are in ninth and fifth grades.

“I’ve taught in all grades from kindergarten to fifth grade,” Strumbie said. “Last year I worked as a long-term substitute teacher. I had been subbing here at MCE for several years and I started thinking that I could do this full time. My husband and I talked about it and decided that I should pursue my teaching certification.”

Strumbie enrolled in an online program at Western Governors University based in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I had started my first semester at Western Governors and then Dr. Mark Forner (MCE principal) approached me and told me about Talent Together. I weighed the pros and cons, knowing that with the path I was on would take me about two and a half years and would also cost me tuition. It seemed to make sense that I pursued this new program and be debt free.”

Strumbie said the program is a challenge.

“I am juggling my family, working here at the school and taking classes,” Strumbie said. “But, the outcome will be worth it.”

Dr. Forner said the number of new teachers has certainly declined over the years. This shortage can be even more challenging for a rural area.

“We live in a great area, but attracting younger people to our area can be a challenge,” Forner said. “Talent Together allows people who already live here, and who are non-traditional students, an opportunity to obtain their certification in a program that is actually tailored to them.”

Becky Alway, Mason County Central

Becky Alway is an apprentice in a kindergarten classroom at Mason County Central’s Scottville Elementary, under the supervision of teacher Beth Stenzel.

Alway’s circumstances are similar to Strumbie. She has an associate degree from Muskegon Community College and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baker College. However, she also attended Western Michigan University with an original intention of majoring in elementary education. Like Strumbie, Alway is working towards her master’s degree through Davenport College. She has worked as an adjunct instructor at West Shore Community College and in 2022, she began working as a paraprofessional in the kindergarten classes at MCC, which allowed her to have the same work schedule as her daughters, who, at the time, were in second and fourth grades. Alway has been active at the school for several years, serving as a volunteer since her children first attended Victory Early Childhood Center; she also served on the board of education along with many community-school partnerships for the district.

She plans to receive her certification at the end of the school year and will earn a master’s degree by the end of 2024.

“When the opportunity was presented through the state,  it made sense to take advantage of this partnership to allow me to teach in my own district,” Alway said. “Knowing I would be able to work as an apprentice for a full school year brought my original intentions, coursework, life experiences full circle in a unique way to allow to me teach where my roots had already been planted.  I am grateful for this opportunity.

“This initiative has been a positive experience. The graduate level course work is heavy. However, I have been impressed with the high quality instructors and the relevant content and support from my learning institution. My time with my mentor teacher, Beth Stenzel, has been irreplaceable. I feel very fortunate to be in her classroom with her knowledge, passion and willingness to share and model the necessary skills for success as a teacher and for student learning.

“While the typical student teaching route is still valuable and necessary, the apprenticeship allows one to gain an even more well-rounded experience to jumpstart the journey. Relating this to myself as a student and to my own students. It has been like being able to plant a seed, water it, learn the conditions and nutrients it needs to grow and then see the harvest or the fruit.  I look forward to the end of the school year seeing the growth of the students knowing I was a part of it from their first day and reflecting on what I learned as well.

Becky Alway and Beth Stenzel, MCC

“I would also like to thank our school principal, Chris Etchison, Superintendent Jeff Mount and the ESD for doing the work to apply for this.”

Stenzel said the apprenticeship is a valuable learning program.

“I have overseen many student teachers over the years and while the student certainly gains great experience in the classroom, it can’t compare to the year-long apprenticeship,” Stenzel said. “This has been a great program that our schools definitely need in order to recruit new teachers.”

MCC Superintendent Mount said hiring new teachers has been a challenge for most school districts across the state. The Talent Together program helps alleviate some of those recruitment issues.

“We are blessed to have Becky here at MCC,” said Mount. “This program is an opportunity for us to grow our own talent. Teaching candidates aren’t exactly knocking down the doors coming from the universities these days. There are more jobs than there are teachers being produced.”

Mount said in years past, the district would have about 100 applications for a single teaching job. “Now, we are lucky if we have two applicants,” he said. “We know there is a teacher shortage, and it is good to see the state government has recognized it as well.”

Chris Etchison, principal of Scottville Elementary, added that the apprentice program also provides a student with valuable lessons.

“In the past, new teachers would spend a semester as a student teacher,” Etchison said. “Spending an entire school year in the classroom, with an experienced teacher, is just invaluable.”

Talent Together participants are at various levels of their educational journey. While Strumbie and Alway are already in an apprenticeship and seeking master’s degrees, there are several others at different stages.

Nicole Hintz-Hawley, Walkerville

Nicole Hintz-Hawley and Syreina Riggs are both graduates of Walkerville High School and both have children enrolled at the school. Both work as paraprofessionals at the district and plan to continue to stay in their hometown.

Prior to learning of Talent Together, both Hintz-Hawley and Riggs were taking classes at West Shore Community College to obtain an associate degree, the first step on their undergraduate path.

Though she is at WSCC, Hintz-Hawley is working within the Talent Together program. Riggs, who had accumulated more credit hours, was transferred by the Talent Together program to Concordia University Ann Arbor.

Riggs’s children are in grades nine, seven, five and kindergarten.

“I really enjoy working with the children and teaching,” Riggs said. “It just makes sense to take the next step and get certified.” Riggs said she plans to receive a certification to teach kindergarten through through third grade.

Hintz-Hawley said she is a single mom, her son is in fifth grade and she has been working at the school for five years. She plans to be certified as a special education teacher.

“Within the next few years, Walkerville Schools will see an almost complete turnover of its elementary faculty because of retirements,” Hintz said. “Programs like this help our school hire teachers who are dedicated to being part of our community.”

Syreina Riggs, Walkerville

“I think the program is a great opportunity for staff that may not have followed a traditional pathway to teacher training,” said Joseph Conkle, superintendent of Walkerville Public Schools. “The teacher shortage is more than just people, but quality people. Too many people think that being a teacher is easy, but if we all think back to the great teachers that we had growing up there were things that set that person apart, and hopefully this type of program brings more of those great teachers into the ranks. By taking people who have already been working in the school system there is already built in experience that these people have and they are already doing the job at typically a much lower rate of pay, appreciation, and recognition so getting these quality people into the classroom is hopefully going to increase the quality of educator we have as well.

“I’m very concerned over the shortage and the multiple different programs that are in place allowing people to enter the teaching profession without experience is going to dilute the quality of teachers and is going to put unqualified and ‘poor’ teachers in positions where they are influencing the next generation to come.  I am thankful for this program because it is allowing me to put two great people, who genuinely love kids and teaching, into classrooms where hopefully they will be the ‘great’ teachers that kids will remember for years to come and maybe it will cause a couple of them to decide to give back and join the teaching profession themselves.”

Three Ludington Area School District paraprofessionals are seeking their bachelor’s degrees. Among them are Alexandra Sloan and T’Lia Bowden who both work at Ludington Elementary School.

Alexandra Sloan, Ludington Area Schools

“All three are excellent at what they do and will someday be great serving the students in a different capacity of being a teacher,” said Dr. Kyle Corlett, superintendent of Ludington Area School District. “We really appreciate their willingness to pursue a career in teaching by taking classes and by taking advantage of this program to be able to do it for free.”

Bowden is enrolled at Northern Michigan University and plans on earning a bachelor’s degree with a certification to teach special education. She would like to then earn a master’s degree in learning disabilities.

“I’ve wanted to teach for awhile,” she said. “I think this program is amazing. The classes are excellent.”

In addition to working as a paraprofessional, Bowden also serves as a substitute teacher.

Sloan is also taking classes at NMU with the goal of being certified to teach kindergarten through eighth grade. She already had earned an associate degree from WSCC.

“I love it,” she said about the program. “I thought it was too good to be true when I first heard about it.”

“The Talent Together program is a great way for our support staff to obtain their certification based on their specific circumstances,” said Katie Eisinger, principal of Ludington Elementary School. “As someone who started as a paraprofessional, I wish Talent Together would have been around in my early years. We are looking forward to supporting these amazing educators as they receive the schooling and training needed to become certified.”

T’Lia Bowden, LAS

Talent Together participants are required to be working in school or district-based instructional roles or, for candidates seeking early childhood education certification, in community-based Great Start Readiness Programs (GSRP) within a participant intermediate school district region for most of their programming.

Three people at Hart Public Schools are participating in the program.

Kyle Weiler is currently working as a long term substitute special education teacher at Hart Middle School. He had been enrolled in a different online program but had encountered an obstacle during the student teaching phase.

“As a dedicated husband and father, my search for an academic program centered on my commitment to both family and professional advancement,” Weiler said. “The requirement for dedicated time off for student teaching posed a challenge, potentially disrupting my ability to work and, unfortunately, taking away valuable family time. The decision to transition to the Talent Together program was driven by its unique flexibility, enabling me to maintain a full-time teaching position without compromising family commitments. Not only is the flexibility of this program amazing, the tuition and books are all covered by the ESD. I will be able to earn my teaching certificate under this program completely debt free.”

Weiler is enrolled at Northern Michigan University and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree with a major in applied workplace leadership in education in August. “I was able to transfer all of my credits from my associate degree and my other college credits which is allowing me to finish my program in one year,” he said.

Kyle Weiler, Hart

“Participating in the Talent Together program has been a very positive experience for me so far. Through my enrollment in the program, I have been able to fulfill the roles of a full-time special education teacher, a full-time student, and a football coach, all while maintaining my responsibilities as a husband and father. The program has afforded me the unique opportunity to work as a full-time teacher and receive a teacher’s salary without the added concern of traditional student teaching requirements. The hours dedicated to my teaching responsibilities are recognized as equivalent to those of student teaching, streamlining the process and providing me with a comprehensive and integrated educational experience.”

Chad Schoch is a one-on-one paraprofessional at Hart’s Spitler Elementary. He is on a path to a degree and certification in elementary education at Adrian College.

“I had exhausted all of my other options because I went to school right out of high school not knowing exactly what I wanted to do,” Schoch said. “After working as a paraprofessional at Spitler Elementary for going on three years, I found such a love for education and working with students. Because of this I wanted to finish up my schooling and become a teacher. Andrea Degen (HPS early childhood director and director of state and federal grants) came to me with this opportunity, and I jumped all over it.

Schoch said he plans on earning his degree within two years.

Chad Schoch, Hart

Like his counterparts, Hart Public Schools Superintendent Mark Platt praised the Talent Together program for recognizing the need to accommodate non-traditional students.

There are so many people who, later in life, realize they wish they had been a teacher,” said Platt. “In the past, the cost of returning to school and the time associated with it were barriers.  Over the last few years, the state has done a great job at reducing barriers and increasing opportunities for people to become teachers.”

Other schools within the West Shore ESD have participants as well, including four at Baldwin Community Schools, two at Gateway to Success Academy, four at Shelby Public Schools and one at the ESD. More are expected to enroll for the next round.

While non-school employees are eligible to apply, applicants who are currently employed by a school district are given priority. Students who are enrolled in another college program can apply and their case will be reviewed by the Talent Connect program officials.

The Talent Together program includes the following educational certifications:

  • Elementary education including options to earn endorsements in: early childhood general education (birth to kindergarten); lower elementary (pre-kindergarten to third grade; upper elementary (third through sixth grades).
  • English as a second language.
  • Special education (kindergarten through 12th grade) including endorsements in: autism; cognitive impairment; emotional impairment; learning disabilities.
  • Secondary certification areas (seventh through 12th grades) including secondary integrated sciences and secondary mathematics.

We are grateful to educational service agencies across Michigan for developing the program, to participating colleges and universities and to the legislature for funding it,” Dr. Jeffrey said.

The interest in Talent Together is growing. Over 2,000 Michiganders have expressed interest in applying to Talent Together via its website. The application period for the second cohort was recently opened and will close on March 3. The program will begin between May and August. To apply, candidates submit an application, which includes a recommendation from a school administrator (for current school district employees). More information about the program can be found at www.mitalenttogether.org.

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