Growing Your Own Teachers

By Roberta F. Smith

There was a knock on the door, and Martha Salas’ life changed when she opened it. Richard Tafoya, principal of La Promesa Elementary School, made a simple request: He wanted Salas to become a teacher.

“I have known you for several years, and since you have a college degree, are homeschooling your five children, and live within a half mile of our school, why not become a teacher at La Promesa?” Tafoya asked. “We will help you become certified, and provide all the support you need.”

Salas agreed, and soon she was in the classroom.

The setting for this story is New Mexico’s Belen Consolidated School District, located in a small, rural, agricultural community about 30 miles from Albuquerque. Belen’s 6,900 residents include many descendents of the state’s original settlers who arrived in the 1700s. The district, which has 10 schools, serves approximately 3,800 students, 60 to 75 percent of whom are Hispanic and 21 percent of whom live in poverty.

Finding qualified teachers was an uphill battle for many years in Belen, which is considered a high-need district by the state. But five years ago, a solution appeared in the form of a Transition to Teaching grant. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and run by the state, the grant helps midcareer changers and recent graduates become certified teachers in high-need schools through alternative licensure.

Today, 28 highly qualified teachers in Belen have taken this route. Only two have left the district, one to raise her family and one who found that teaching was not for him. This is a “grow your own” program that is truly a success story.

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