RICHLAND, Wash. – The American Dream. It’s the phrase that Pasco High School teacher Esfeidy Guzman uses to describe the achievement of earning a bachelor’s degree in education and in starting her career as a full‑time teacher.

She is one of several dozen former paraeducators who are now teaching in local schools as a result of a program offered through Washington State University Tri‑Cities.

Guzman was selected by her principal to participate in the WSU Tri‑Cities College of Education Alternate Route Program. The program provides funds, pathways and courses for selected paraeducators to earn their education degree in two years where they receive endorsements in either special education or English language learning. Individuals receive course credit for proven skills and classroom experience and take classes in the evenings while continuing full‑time in their roles as paraeducators.

“I don’t think I would have earned my degree if it wasn’t for the alternate route program at WSU Tri‑Cities,” Guzman said. “I just don’t think it would have been possible for me, raising a family while working full‑time. It truly is a dream come true.”

Funds to support new class of teachers

Students working in a classroom.
The Alternate Route Program provides funds, pathways and courses for selected paraeducators to earn their education degree in two years where they receive endorsements in either special education or English language learning.

The program was just awarded its third consecutive grant by the Washington Professional Educator Standards Board to continue providing financial support for 10–12 students in a cohort per year.

Not only does the program provide individuals with a route that makes it possible to attend school while working full‑time, it also helps to solve a local teacher shortage.

“The program is really doing what it is supposed to do, which is meeting the need for teachers in our local districts,” said Judy Morrison, WSU Tri‑Cities academic director for the College of Education. “Our districts came to us about the need for more special education and ELL teachers. To meet that need, we built this program.”

Lindsay Lightner, alternate route program coordinator, said the two‑year program is incredibly rigorous. In addition to completing challenging coursework, participants work full‑time in schools and must provide clear evidence that their classroom experiences warrant course credit.

“Our alumni that have been through it have said it is worth it,” Lightner said. “For a lot of them, it is personally fulfilling and they feel ready, qualified and recognized in their role as teachers after their role as paraeducators. We have also received some good feedback from the districts. It’s been a great process.”

Endorsements to support local needs

Closeup of Esfeidy Guzman.
Esfeidy Guzman

Guzman said she specifically chose the endorsement of English language learning through the program because it hit close to home with her own experiences and she knew it was an area where she could make the most difference.

She grew up in Pasco, attending Pasco High School for two years before transitioning to Chiawana High School where she graduated as part of its first class. She now serves as an English language development teacher at Pasco High School where she works with students who are not fluent in English.

Guzman said she knows what it is like to grow up speaking a language other than English in the home, learning English through the school system, and then trying to navigate the school process. Through the advancement of her skills as an educator through the WSU Tri‑Cities program, she feels equipped and passionate about educating the next generation of Tri‑Cities students.

“I wish this program would have been around for my teachers because I believe that the strategies that I was taught for ELL students would have benefited me or any number of other students,” she said. “This is a program that is made with the well‑being of the community in mind.”

Passion for serving, support to do well

The desire to serve local needs is a common theme among many of the paraeducators participating in the WSU Tri‑Cities alternate route program. For recent WSU Tri‑Cities alternate route graduate Susan Payne, her love and passion for education came out of wanting to serve a population of students who may struggle with the language component of their education.

“I have worked with some very bright children who feel that they are not smart because they are struggling with a second language,” she said. “I wanted to be in a position that helps these students celebrate their achievements of developing dual languages and content areas.”

Payne said what she enjoyed most about the program is the support of dedicated staff and faculty, especially since the program is difficult due to its time commitments and requirements.

“It’s much harder than it sounds, but the WSU campus has some extremely dedicated staff to help and guide you,” she said. “Teachers are very helpful and accessible, which is vital to this program because the students are working at their schools during the day and taking class at night.”

Payne said the support of her school mentors were also invaluable.

“The alternate route program is dependent on the support the student receives from her or his work school and mentor,” she said. “With a supportive mentor and school, the alternate route student has the perspective and access to the students’ personalities, already built relationships and co‑workers’ advice to help along the way.”