5 new degrees fast-track VCU students to tackle Virginia teacher shortage

Photo by Hannah Eason

Hannah Eason, News Editor

Travis Cooper, a special education teacher at St. Joseph’s Villa, said he would’ve majored in special education had it been offered when he attended VCU.

Cooper, who graduated in 2018 with a major in history and english, said a focus in teaching could have shortened his time in school, as well as jump-started his career.

“Majoring in teaching would be great because you get the experience earlier,” Cooper said. “You get to learn more about the field earlier in your time in college.”

Starting this semester, the School of Education will offer five new undergraduate degrees designed to address the teacher shortage affecting classrooms across Virginia.

The programs include specializations in early childhood, elementary, secondary, health and physical and special education.

These undergraduate degrees give students an option to major in teaching. Previously, students studied a content major, such as science, and then later received their teaching credentials.

VCU’s new programs put students on track to enter the profession in four years, instead of the previous five and a half years.

“This way, students who come in as freshmen right now and know that they want to be a teacher, are moving into a teaching job a year earlier than they would be with the MT [Master of Teaching] program,” said Joan Rhodes, an associate professor and chair of the department of teaching and learning.

Rhodes hopes the shortened time span could attract more students to the field, alleviating the financial challenge of additional years in college.

Teaching and learning professor Lisa Cipolletti said the programs were crafted to take students off campus — and into their future classrooms — sooner. 

“Not only are they going to be working with mentor teachers who are passionate about what they’re doing,” Cipolletti said, “but [they will have] those honest conversations about the challenges and skills needed in the field.”

All students in the curriculum will take a required course in teaching English language learners, a high-need area of education. The programs also include a focus in home environments and urban environments.

According to an August 2018 report from the Migration Policy Institute, three districts in the Richmond area have more than 2,000 students learning English, including Chesterfield County with 5,437, Henrico County with 5,060 and Richmond with 2,562.

Richmond had the largest teacher to pupil ratio in Virginia for kindergarten through seventh grade, with 18.23 students per teacher in the 2017-2018 school year, according to a report by the Department of Education.

“When developing our programs, we made sure that we didn’t cut any corners,” said Lisa Yamin, director of undergraduate programs for the School of Education.

In the elementary program, the degree requires additional science and math classes, which is not typical of all programs for that age group, Rhodes said.

“I’m really proud of that,” Rhodes said. “I feel like when our students leave here, they are very competent and they’re going to help build some of the needs we see in the higher grades in STEM as well.”

Al Byers, a visiting scholar in STEM education, says he is at the “forefront” of the science, technology, engineering and math education field, working to reduce the deficit math and science teachers. 

“There is a high need for personnel in STEM jobs, and a lack of diversity in these areas,” Byers said in an email. “We are preparing the future teachers that will ignite the spark for students to pursue more arduous coursework in the STEM fields, to keep Virginia competitive and secure opportunities in high demand (and high income) fields.”

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