Alternative teaching program makes its debut in Columbia

COLUMBIA -- A controversial alternative teaching program recently approved by state legislators made its Columbia debut Saturday.

The Passport to Teaching program, offered by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, gives would-be teachers a new way into classrooms. It targets professionals, with any degree, who want a career change.

At least 75 people from young to old, retirees to working professionals came to the informational meeting at the Radisson Hotel off Bush River Road. Columbia was the last stop in the state for the American Board program, which also drew crowds in Charleston and Greenville.

Rae Ezekiel, 40, a mother of four, said she came to see if her expertise in business management could translate into teaching. A former nurse for seven years, Ezekiel said she needs a change.

"It's something that I kind of wanted to do, but never really pursued it," she said of teaching. "It keeps surfacing in my life, and I kind of let it go, but here it is surfacing again."

The American Board program would allow people like Ezekiel to keep working while preparing for two tests in the subject area they want to teach in. Costs can climb to more than $1,000 for study materials, added certification and fees for retaking tests.

Mark Lynch, 43, of West Columbia thinks the price is too steep, but he said it could be worth it to some. He already has a master's degree in education, but he was at the event to see if the program helped with the Praxis, a test teachers must take. It does not.

"For those who have not gone through my situation, I think it would be excellent for them," Lynch said. "If you've got an accounting degree, it would be good for you. Hey, if you want to teach math, go for it."

Six other states already have the program. American Board, a Washington nonprofit group, says it could be the much-needed push to closing teacher shortages.

About 300 to 500 teacher vacancies persist each year in the state, according to the S.C. Department of Education

For example, the School District of Fairfield County, which was at the event to recruit, is still trying to fill vacancies for the new school year. The district had 99 vacancies earlier this year but now has nine, said Jannette Henry Davenport, deputy superintendent of human resources and administration.

To help pull in educators, the district offered unusual $4,000 bonuses to English teachers.

Some South Carolina educators don't like the program, saying it won't ensure a needed level of knowledge and skills among teachers.

South Carolina already has an alternate certification route called Program of Alternative Certification for Educators, or PACE. It requires training, mentoring and some graduate-level course work before a teacher can gain a permanent certification.

Applicants in both the PACE and American Board programs must work three years before receiving permanent certification.

The Department of Education supports both programs but stresses that PACE is still the flagship. It's a longer program, requiring more preparation, said Kathy Gardner-Jones, a spokeswoman for the department.

No matter what path, "we want them to be the best possible teachers that we can put in the classroom," she said. "For both programs, the bottom line is the same we want excellent teachers."