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Lower Columbia College’s first four-year degree will create an employee pipeline for Cowlitz County schools to cope with a statewide teacher shortage, according to local school officials.

The bachelor of applied science degree will prepare students for jobs as K-8 teachers, for which a teaching certificate is needed, as well as early learning and preschool positions without certificates. It was inspired by a local need for qualified teachers, said LCC president Chris Bailey.

“Virtually all the (local) districts had some unlicensed teachers. They were having difficulty finding a pool of quality teachers for their institution,” Bailey said. “Similarity, they had real difficulties finding substitutes.”

The state superintendent’s office reported in 2015 that more than 80 percent of schools filled some teacher positions with “emergency certificates” or long-term substitutes. (Emergency certificates are issued to employees that do not have a state certification in teaching, but are hired to fill a full-time teaching position.)

Moreover, area schools may struggle to retain teachers, and many teachers commute from other cities.

“Four or five years ago there was a landslide in Woodland that closed Interstate 5. Our school districts had to close school because so many of our teachers come up from Vancouver. That really demonstrates how there is huge lack of qualified professionals in our community,” said Michaela Jackson, an LCC faculty member who helped create the new degree program.

So LCC officials decided to “explore teacher education as our first bachelor of applied science,” Bailey said.

“We thought it served a great community need, and it’s something we could do here at a lower cost,” he said.

The college worked with its local K-12 partners to tailor the program to local needs, said Ann Williamson, LCC teacher education faculty. For example, the curriculum focuses on classroom management and supporting students who might be dealing with trauma or adversity, two things local teachers said were necessary in their day-to-day jobs, Williamson said.

The program is also designed to accommodate the work schedules of the “working adult,” Bailey said.

“Location matters for students. And our average age here is 31, so most of our students have job responsibilities or parent obligations or both. So it’s really important we design a model that works for adult learners, who are part-time or full-time employees,” Bailey said.

This is especially important for students pursuing a degree in teacher education, as often the applicants are classroom aides who want to earn their teaching certification while they continue to work in the schools, said Ray Clift, president of the Longview teachers union.

“They have in mind making this something that people who are actually working right now would be able to do,” Clift said. “They would have to be going all the way to Vancouver to get their degree (before), so this is something they will be able to do in our community.”

Growing a local, qualified workforce is beneficial to more than just the schools, though. The new degree program will likely increase the overall number of residents with bachelor degrees, which has a major benefit on the economy, said Ted Sprague, president of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council.

As it stands, only about 10 percent of Cowlitz County residents have a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. That’s only about a third as much as the state average.

More bachelor’s degrees means lower unemployment rates and higher wages for everyone in the community, according to a 2017 study by the Brookings Institute. And an educated workforce and a four-year college program is attractive to businesses looking to move into the county, Sprague said.

“When we can say our local college offers bachelor’s degrees, that makes us stand out above areas that don’t have that. … It means better opportunities to recruit new companies here,” Sprague said.

Bailey said that “good education equals good community,” and the four-year teacher education program improves education across all academic levels. It will increase local opportunities for a four-year degree, as well as help Cowlitz County schools attract and retain qualified staff, he said.

The hope is that LCC can add more four-year programs to respond to the community’s needs, he said.

“Long-term we are already beginning to discuss a potential second, four-year program. I can envision us having two or three of these programs at our university center,” Bailey said.

Two years in the making, the four-year teacher education officially opens to students the fall quarter of 2019. The college is currently accepting applications, and up to 30 students will be admitted in the first year.

“I’m hoping it’s going to give a great sense of pride in our community for LCC to be able to offer this. I hope it will be able to open doors for people who want to be teachers but never thought they could be,” Williamson said.

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