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Promising Practice Story Cherry Creek Future Educator Pathway

Colorado's stories of promising practices
Colorado's stories of promising practices

Educators matter


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Educators Matter

Cherry Creek School District


Grace Byrnes always been passionate about working with children and realized that could be her professional calling – to be a teacher.

“Being a part of helping them and bonding with kids who really, really need it the most, that’s my favorite part,” Grace said.

As a senior at Grandview High School in Aurora, Grace is one of the inaugural students in Cherry Creek School District’s Future Educator Pathway – a postsecondary program that allows high school juniors and seniors to spend half of their school days in an elementary classroom as a paraprofessional.

Grace is one of 12 students who are in the first year of the district’s program, in which students become paid district staff members while earning both high school and college credit. 

In Colorado, almost 9,000 teaching and special service provider (SSP) positions open every year – about 14% of all teaching positions and 19% of all SSP positions. SSP positions include school nurses, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, etc.

Of the teaching positions, about 3% remained unfilled in 2019-20 and 12% were filled through a shortage mechanism. And of the SSP positions, roughly 9% went unfilled in 2019 and 8% were filled through a shortage mechanism, which could mean everything from hiring substitutes to other emergency authorizations.

As districts struggle to find teachers every year, some are turning to “grow-your-own” programs like Cherry Creek’s apprenticeship model.


Map of Metro Area school districts with Cherry Creek School District highlighted.

Green down arrow

“They are just like normal employees for us,” said Mike Wadleigh, internship and apprenticeship coordinator with the district. “They went through the hiring process, fingerprinting, background checks. They are hired on as paras in the schools that they work at, so they are entered into the PERA (Public Employees Retirement Assistance) retirement program.”

What makes Cherry Creek’s model unique is that it isn’t simply a peek behind the curtain at teaching – apprentices work at the schools for the full day, getting the full experience.

“We are asking the principals not only to have the students at recess and monitoring the lunch room, but we want them to truly get an educational experience so they know what it takes to teach – to work those small groups, to teach those mini-lessons, so it’s more than just what a normal para will do but to get an experience of what is like to be an educator,” Wadleigh said. “We are committed to them. We really want them to go off to college after their apprenticeship and know that they have a place to come back if they want to come back and teach in the district.”

The idea is that these students will get a chance early in their careers to find out if teaching is what they want to do.

“One thing I’ve always said is that had a lot of teachers known what it is truly like early on, they may have changed their trajectory,” Wadleigh said. “Student teaching is the last thing you do, which is the most intense part of the (college) education preparation program. These students are getting to do that as juniors and seniors in high school so they can make an educated decision about their careers.”

In total, the district’s educator pathway has 22 students. Ten of the students are taking a teacher cadet education course at Overland High School. Those students also do classroom observations. But the 12 who are apprentices do all the coursework online and also have an apprenticeship class.  

Wadleigh said they interview the students in the same way they would a prospective employee.

“What we hear is that they are all passionate about working with kids,” he said.

Working in the classroom helps the students gain an understanding about the profession, both good and bad. Students learn that it can be tiring, and that teachers don’t get much down time, Wadleigh said.

“You have to be on all the time,” he said. “But it is also very rewarding. Listening to these kids talk about their experiences is rewarding to me. I’m not in the classroom every day. But hearing from our apprentices, that they are in real, meaningful experiences.”

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