District selects 12 employees for education degree program

The Putnam County School District has partnered with a university to support local paraprofessionals earning their bachelor’s degree in education with the goal of hiring homegrown talent. 

The Paraprofessional to Professional Program is administered through Saint Leo University. The school will offer participants accredited courses through online, video-conferencing or on-campus classes at Saint Leo’s Education Center in Jacksonville.

“The idea of the program started because of the critical teacher shortage we have across the state,” said Alexandra Kanellis, associate chairwoman of the undergraduate education department.

“One thing we thought about was that we need to look more at what resources we already have in the school and focus on trying to grow teachers from within the community.”

Kanellis said Saint Leo would offer discounted tuition to paraprofessionals in the program — which is currently being implemented in Clay, Duval, Alachua and other counties — and the tuition will be a set rate that won’t rise during the two years a paraprofessional is in the program. 

“The biggest seller is they can get a bachelor’s degree at a very low cost, and they can intern in the schools and continue to be paid as a paraprofessional,” Superintendent Rick Surrency said. 

Surrency said the district chose 12 paraprofessionals for the program before the district and Saint Leo held the group’s first orientation this week. The participants currently work in elementary, middle and high schools.

Kanellis and Surrency said the goal of the program is for the district to hire the paraprofessionals as teachers once they complete the program and earn their teaching certification.  

Aside from alleviating the district’s teacher shortage, Surrency said, bringing in more homegrown teachers would give the district’s faculty more stability. Oftentimes, teachers hired from other areas do not stay in Putnam County for long, he said. 

“What it is going to do for us is it is going to help continue having people in our county who have been raised here, who can give back to our county and be here for a long period of time,” he said. 

Surrency said many of the Saint Leo courses offered to Putnam County professionals will be taught by district employees, whether they be teachers, literacy coaches or administrators serving as adjunct professors. 

By doing this, he said, paraprofessionals will be prepared for the specific teaching environment they will be stepping into once they have their degree. Kanellis said the school would also offer first-year mentors to ease the transition into the classroom for educators who graduate the program.

“We welcome Saint Leo University and want to continue this program for years to come,” Surrency said. “It really is a great incentive for paraprofessionals.”

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