Like a lot of college students, Liliana Esqueda, 22, was undecided for some time about what her major would be at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville.
Then she remembered how much she enjoyed the early-childhood education “career pathway” curriculum she completed while attending Gainesville High School, where she graduated in 2014.
Gainesville Schools’ Aspiring Teachers Program
Candidates admitted to the Aspiring Teachers Program will be required to work as a paraprofessional with Gainesville City Schools, apply for any state or federal financial assistance, attend monthly cohort meetings, pass all of the required tests, adhere to all requirements of the University of North Georgia and maintain a 2.5 or higher GPA.
Source: Gainesville City Schools
When she narrowed in on a teaching degree, Esqueda began to learn of partnerships emerging between UNG and local school districts that promised financial assistance, mentoring and a job available when she finishes her undergraduate program.
Esqueda is now one of four individuals in the first cohort of the Gainesville City Schools’ Aspiring Teachers Program, which partners with UNG and looks to paraprofessionals in schools to fill critical positions across all grade levels.
“I feel really confident,” Esqueda said about entering the program. “So that’s how I got into that.”
The Board of Education allocated $100,000 this year to implement this minority recruitment plan for up to 10 future employees — part of a broader hiring measure that included additional funding to fill positions in work-based learning programs; positions to support nurse caseloads at Gainesville middle and high schools; and new special education professionals.
Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said staff turnover and changing demographics prompted the board to pursue the hiring plan to attract and retain teachers from minority backgrounds. That includes pursuing fluent Spanish-speakers like Esqueda, who was born in the United States to Mexican immigrants.
Hispanic students are a majority of the district’s student body at 60 percent, but 80 percent of the system’s teachers are Caucasian, according to Williams. Just 15 percent of the student population is white, while African-Americans account for 19 percent.
According to Priscilla Collins, chief professional services officer with Gainesville City Schools, the program is “designed to achieve equity, excellence and diversity in the new teacher pipeline and the teaching force.”
The program “will address the high teacher turnover and cultural disconnect between (Gainesville City Schools) students and teachers” according to a memo Collins shared with the board of education last week.
Collins said having a demonstrable commitment to the community is a key requirement for admission to the program — an attractive feature for a student like Esqueda.
While attending Gainesville High, she mentored elementary students at Centennial Arts Academy, and said she has been involved with several service projects at UNG.
Esqueda said one of her main goals — one she wants to bring to bear as a teacher — is to create relationships within the local Latino community.
And maybe she’ll even begin her teaching career at Enota elementary, where her educational journey really began.
“I love the community Gainesville has and how diverse it is,” Esqueda said.
Participants in the program may be employed as paraprofessionals in Gainesville schools, and would attend monthly cohort meetings while participating in leadership, organizing and advocacy training, according to officials.
Current paraprofessionals, graduating high school seniors, and current college juniors or seniors are the ideal candidates for the program.
Participants are asked to commit to teaching for Gainesville City Schools for five years. They would be required to repay some portion of the financial assistance they receive.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re preparing a pipeline of teachers,” Williams said. “My No. 1 goal is to make sure we’ve got quality teachers that are building relationships with our students.”