APEC Center: A New Pathway for Potential Teachers
By Marla Sanders and Tracy West
South Carolina, like many states in our country, is facing a challenge that threatens its ability to provide a quality public education for all students. Annual reports from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA) indicate that since 2017, school districts have reported more than 500 teaching vacancies at the beginning of the school year, leaving nearly 500 classrooms without certified teachers to educate and guide South Carolina's children. There are growing teacher shortages in every state, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting there will be approximately 1.9 million job openings for teachers by 2024. In South Carolina, traditional teacher preparation programs and alternative certification pathways combined are not able to meet the demand for certified teachers. Despite these sources, CERRA reports that South Carolina school districts still begin each school year with vacancies.
Nationally, growing student enrollment and teacher attrition are significant contributors to the teacher shortage. Although recruiting and retaining quality teachers is a concern for many schools, high-poverty schools often have higher turnover rates than schools that are located in more affluent communities. Ronfedlt, Loeb, and Wyckoff (2013) found that high rates of teacher turnover negatively impact student achievement, particularly in those schools with high numbers of minority and low-performing students. Having an effective, qualified teacher in every classroom in South Carolina is critically important to ensuring that K-12 students develop the knowledge and skills they need for the 21st century workforce.
To meet the growing demand for teachers in South Carolina, the state Department of Education has recently extended alternative program delivery options to institutions of higher education. During that time, Columbia College received a grant from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education to establish a South Carolina Center of Excellence to study and develop a quality alternative certification program. The Alternative Pathways to Educator Certification (APEC) Center was established in June 2018 through a partnership with Richland School District One and Fairfield County School District. Since then, The APEC Center has developed partnerships with five additional districts. By partnering with districts, the APEC Center is able to prepare instructional assistants for teacher certification through an innovative work-embedded teacher residency that provides on the job training, mentoring, and support.
Since the program began in 2018, The APEC Center has accepted 66 APEC Fellows who will one day assume classroom teaching positions. A major concern of public education is that the teaching population does not mirror the diverse backgrounds of public students. NCES data from the 2015-2016 school year revealed that more than 50 percent of public school students were from racial or ethnic minority groups while only 20 percent of teachers were representative of those groups. We believe that all students benefit from interacting with positive role models from diverse backgrounds in the school environment. Consequently, the APEC Cohorts continue to reflect our state's diverse population to include young men of color to pursue certification.
APEC Fellows also represent a committed group of individuals who have been working in local school districts and supporting South Carolina's students as instructional assistants for many years. Most have long had the desire to become certified teachers but lacked a feasible pathway as working adults with families since traditional teacher certification programs require a full semester student teaching experience, requiring them to leave their paying jobs. The opportunity to earn certification while continuing full-time employment while achieving classroom teaching positions is life-changing for APEC Fellows, as they will be able to increase their income and provide for their families.
Elizabeth Kirby, an APEC Fellow recently awarded the APEC Fellow of the Year, says "The Columbia College APEC program has allowed me the unique opportunity to maintain my employment status within Richland School District Two, achieve initial certification in Early Childhood Education, and pursue a master's degree. I have felt well equipped to complete all academic requirements and fully supported by amazing people along the way. I have been blessed along the APEC pathway and look forward to the many doors certification will open for me in the future." Alternative programs like APEC provide the perfect opportunity to empower working adults as they pursue their career goals and ensure that children in South Carolina have access to high-quality certified teachers.
Marla Sanders is associate professor of education at Columbia College and co-director of the APEC Center. Tracy West is dean of the division of education and co-director of the APEC Center.