ELK GROVE, Calif. — Carol Elgin spent a recent Monday preparing a tiny classroom at Foulks Ranch Elementary School in Elk Grove for students.

She’s waited a long time to have her own class. Over the last six years, Elgin, 55, has been a substitute teacher and instructional assistant. Before that she spent 20 years in sales.

But she had always yearned to be a teacher.

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Her dreams came true when the first group of sixth-grade students took their seats at the horseshoe-shaped table in the middle of her classroom.

“It’s exciting,” said Elgin, a teaching intern. “I’m in the classroom.”

The California Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program helped to make her dream a reality. Elgin is one of hundreds of classified employees — generally bus drivers, clerks, yard supervisors and instructional assistants — across California who are getting financial and instructional support to help them earn a teaching credential.

The $20 million grant program was approved by state legislators in 2016 to combat California’s teacher shortage. The grants pay $4,000 annually per participant for up to five years to help them complete a bachelor’s degree and earn a teaching credential.

Elk Grove Unified actually signed 21 people up for the program, but one — a substitute teacher is not subsidized by the grant. The other members of the cohort include a yard supervisor, a secretary and 18 paraeducators, more commonly known as instructional assistants.

Sacramento State instructors come to Elk Grove Unified campuses to offer evening classes to the cohort. The state grant pays 40 percent and Elk Grove Unified 60 percent of the cost.

After the five-year grant ends, Elk Grove Unified officials would like to start a program of their own, which will pay a portion of an employee’s cost of obtaining a teaching credential, said Shelly Clark, director of personnel development for Elk Grove Unified.

Elk Grove’s current cohort, which was required to have bachelor’s degrees, will earn a dual credential — multiple subject and special education. The class is expected to complete its training in 2020, Clark said.

There is a national and statewide shortage of special education teachers, Clark said. Sacramento State, the biggest producer of teachers in the region, barely graduates enough special education teachers to fill the needs of Elk Grove Unified, let alone the rest of the region, she said.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find — even for full time — really qualified applicants, because the universities aren’t really turning them out like they used to,” said Kim Huffman, a special education teacher at Foulks Ranch Elementary. “People aren’t going into education, especially special education, like they used to.”

Elgin learned about the program from an email to employees last year. “It was right in front of my face,” she said. “My kids are in college, so it was never in my brain that we could afford the possibility for me to go back to school to become a teacher. It was pennies from heaven, I have to say.”

Amy Dunzweiler, 31, considered becoming a teacher when she graduated from Sacramento State in 2008. “But the economy was really bad and teachers were being laid off,” she said.

Instead, she worked as a teaching assistant and a clerk at Elk Grove Unified. She currently works at Joseph Kerr Middle School in the morning and at an after-school program at Anna Kirchgater Elementary in Sacramento.

“I really enjoy working with students and seeing them grow,” she said. “I love that look in their eyes when they finally get something. I love working with kids. I like seeing them learn and becoming who they want to be in their lives.”

Over the last six years, teachers at Kerr often asked her why she didn’t go to school to get her teaching credential. When the school district scheduled a meeting at the school to offer information about the program to turn classified employees into teachers, three different teachers forwarded her the email.

She felt she had to go.

Now Dunzweiler is elated. “I don’t have to take out a student loan,” she said. “That is what slowed down the process for me. Now that I’m in this cohort I don’t have to do that. That was the biggest hurdle to going back to school. I couldn’t afford to do that on my own.”

She and Elgin are two of eight students from the cohort who will start their internships a year early to help fill part-time special education teaching positions in the district. Clark said interns fill teaching positions only when no credentialed teacher can be found.

After six years working as a teaching assistant at Sunrise Elementary School in Rancho Cordova, Elgin is happy to finally be able to develop her own lesson plans, but she also feels the pressure of the added responsibility.

“There is so much more involved in being a special education teacher — filling out an IEP (education plan) and meeting with parents,” Elgin said. “You have to do it by the book.”

Elgin’s classroom in the Learning Resource Center at Foulks Ranch Elementary is wedged between the classrooms of two other teachers. On a recent Monday she went over lesson plans with Huffman, a credentialed teacher who works part time in the center. The two had spent the previous week reviewing Individualized Education Programs, a federal requirement for special education students, and discussing the needs and goals of the sixth-graders Elgin will teach. Huffman taught most of them last year when they were in fifth grade.

The center contains three small classrooms, a large multipurpose room with a white board and another room holding special auditory equipment. Students with special needs come to the center for individual meetings and group classes with the teachers. Some come just to work on a single skill like math, while others attend for multiple sessions.

“This job, because we are part time, is very intense and fast paced,” Huffman said. “I have some anxiety about wanting to make sure she has enough support to feel successful. The last thing I want is for this to be a very stressful negative experience for her.”

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