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Topeka USD 501 special education teacher thankful for alternate pathways to classroom

Topeka USD 501 special education teacher thankful for alternate pathways to classroom
Posted: Apr 6, 2022
Categories: KSDE
Author: Ann Bush

TOPEKA — Without the help of two programs, Ricky Prato wouldn’t be where he is today - a licensed special education teacher at Meadows Elementary School, Topeka Unified School District 501.

Prato, 38, of Silver Lake, had many careers during his earlier years – bank teller, landscaper, shoe salesman. But it was a job at a youth center he had at the age of 16 that sparked joy for him. After trying other careers, Prato remembered that spark from his teenage years.

“I wanted that back,” he said. “I relate well to kids.”

So, in 2009, he became a special education paraprofessional at Meadows. Along the way, Prato decided he wanted to take it a step further and become a special education teacher. He decided to pursue his bachelor’s degree in education. However, he wasn’t sure how he could do it with limited funds and a full-time schedule.

Prato heard about Topeka USD 501’s Grow Our Own program, which has since been put on hold because of funding constraints. For the program, Topeka USD 501 partnered with colleges and universities, such as Washburn University, so certified staff members could become licensed educators, said Dr. Beryl New, director of certified personnel and equity for the district. Staff members had to apply to participate in the Grown Our Own program, and, if selected, Topeka USD 501 covered the expenses of books and tuition. To be eligible for the program, the candidate had to have been employed with the district for two years prior to applying; already have earned 48 college hours; pass six college credit hours each semester and between six and 15 hours each summer; and agree to work for Topeka USD 501 for two years after program completion.

Prato also received help through Washburn University’s Paraprofessionals to Teachers Program (PTP), which is a pathway for paraprofessionals to complete teacher licensure. The program provides financial assistance to participants; coursework at times convenient for working paraprofessionals; and also provides participants with mentoring and coaching. The focus of Washburn’s PTP program is special education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) license areas.

Six people who completed the Grow Our Own program are still teaching for the district, New said.

Prato was the last Topeka staff member to finish the program before it was put on hold, said Larry Robbins, deputy superintendent of operations for Topeka USD 501. Administration is currently looking at reinvesting in the program – especially with the shortage of teachers.

Life threw some challenges Prato’s way while he was completing the program, but he never gave up.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I challenged myself, and I did it,” he said. “I felt it was an obstacle course at times, but I never gave up. I really want to be an inspiration to others.”

This is Prato’s second year teaching.

During his time in the program, Prato said he had strong mentors and a good support system in place.

“We feel that supporting a wonderful paraprofessional to become a teacher is a great way to help our school,” said Nicole Johnson, principal of Meadows Elementary. “There is a shortage of teachers. We need to find creative ways to grow our profession. Targeting good candidates with programs like this can help support individuals to take the leap to committing to earning a degree.”

The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) offers different pathways to the classroom, such as the Limited Apprentice License (LAL) program for high incidence special education. The LAL, currently offered at five Kansas universities, is an alternative pathway that allows a qualified candidate to start teaching prior to completing a full program. In order to qualify, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university; have a GPA of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale for the most recent 60 semester credit hours; have a minimum of one full school year as a full-time special education paraprofessional under the supervision of a special education teacher; and have verification that a local education agency/district will employ and support them.

The universities currently offering the LAL program are Fort Hays State University, Friends University, Pittsburg State University, Washburn University and Wichita State University.

Programs like LAL help fill a niche with quality candidates who already have classroom experience in place, said Dr. Mischel Miller, director of Teacher Licensure and Accreditation for KSDE.

“It’s phenomenal when we can create those partnerships,” she said. “Special education has the highest number of vacancies in Kansas. Programs like this can help.”

Prato is enjoying teaching and working toward a master’s of special education from Washburn University. He is thankful for the programs that helped him achieve his dream of being in the classroom.

“I couldn’t do it without either one of these programs. It turned my life around,“ Prato said. “I’m taking it one step at a time. I want to keep learning and achieving. Every day, the kids put a smile on my face. It’s such a rewarding (career) field.”

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