Guerrero: Breaking down barriers for great teachers
Rocketship Schools teacher Bruni Hernandez. Photo courtesy of Rocketship Schools.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has made very clear the essential nature of our educators for our families, communities and economy. Every parent now knows how hard the job of a teacher is. Every parent now knows just how critical it is to have great teachers in every classroom. And every parent knows that their child thrives under the direction of an excellent teacher.

    Yet as our schools fully reopen again, teachers are leaving the profession in droves. This compounds an already decades-long teacher shortage here in California and across the country. As we start school this fall, we must seize this historic opportunity to invest in excellent teachers and widen pathways to the classroom.

    We need to invest in educators like Bruni Hernandez. Ms. Hernandez was one of our frontline heroes supporting our families and running distance learning virtually, and facilitating small group instruction on campus last school year. She also lost her brother to COVID-19, and had to support her sister-in-law and her mother, who herself was recovering from COVID-19.

    In the midst of all of that, Ms. Hernandez earned her bachelor’s degree in just one year through Rivet School. Why? To fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a classroom teacher. This fall, after 10 years at Rocketship Brilliant Minds as a paraeducator and art enrichment coordinator, Ms. Hernandez stands in front of her very own classroom as a first grade STEM teacher.

    We need more great teachers like Ms. Hernandez who come from and reflect their local community to our students. A recent analysis by the Washington Post found that only “one-tenth of 1% of Latino students attend a school system where the portion of Latino teachers equals or exceeds the percentage of Latino students.”

    Ms. Hernandez is a Latina who lives in a working class neighborhood of East San Jose. She largely represents the low-income students of color Rocketship Brilliant Minds serves. Vast amounts of research shows that when students have “windows”—or teachers who show them new experiences and viewpoints—and “mirrors”—teachers who reflect and understand their cultural experiences—they achieve higher levels of academic success.

    But for so many dedicated educators like Ms. Hernandez, the major barrier to full-time, professionally-paid teaching is completing their B.A. Ms. Hernandez tried for years to get her degree, but with working full-time and raising her children, all she amassed were a few credits and student loan debt.

    Ms. Hernandez completed her degree through the support of Rocketship and our partnership with Rivet School. We worked with Ms. Hernandez to support her pursuit of her degree—flexing her schedule when possible and collaborating with her Rivet coach to navigate the tangled web of teacher certification exams and paperwork post-graduation. When her brother died, Ms. Hernandez needed support and to pause her program. She got both from our staff and our partners at Rivet, and then a few months later when she was ready to start her coursework up again, we were ready to ensure she could finish her degree in a timely manner.

    At Rocketship, 72% of our educators identify as educators of color—a percentage that continues to grow as we invest in programs like Rivet School. This statistic—and Ms. Hernandez’s experience—should not be unusual. There are still not enough opportunities available for future educators to become a fully credentialed teacher later in life.

    In California alone, the state needs an additional 4,100 teachers per year to fill classrooms—and that does not include the additional need for teachers post-pandemic. The Golden State is facing a major teacher shortage, but an abundance of dedicated educators are just waiting to stand in front of the classroom and lead.

    Rocketship Schools teacher Bruni Hernandez and her son Dominic. Photo courtesy of Rocketship Schools.

    Ms. Hernandez’s high school son Dominic said it best at the 2021 Rivet School graduation, “Seeing how much my mom has done, how hard she’s worked for this, and how many kids she’s helped throughout her life to give her the experience to be a great teacher. All she needed was her B.A. and I’m so proud of her.”

    Let’s invest in programs and partnerships to get more Ms. Hernandez’s in the classroom.

    Maricela Guerrero is the executive director of Rocketship Public Schools California where she leads a network of 13 public elementary schools across the Bay Area. Guerrero launched her career in elementary education over 20 years ago, serving as a teacher, educator and coach.

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