The bright and happy colors on the walls, on the floors, on the bulletin boards, and all around the students sitting “criss-cross applesauce” perfectly matched Miss T and her encouraging nature.
“Oooh, I like the word ‘excellent.’ Can you make an X with your arms like me?” she asked her classroom full of pre-kindergarten students. “Let’s practice in the air first.”
One by one, the students proceeded up to the white board to draw the letter of the day, X, while Lushawn Threats, “Miss T,” asked them to cheer each other on, with the promise of a dance session and playground fun, next.
The morning lesson, and others throughout the school year, are helping Threats fulfill her student teaching requirement as part of UNLV’s new Paraprofessional Pathways Project (PPP), what one of the UNLV faculty leads Kenneth Varner calls a “game changer” for Nevada’s education system.
It’s a program that’s empowering CCSD support staff and instructional aides, like Threats, to make the transition to a full-time teaching career in as little as one year.
“It’s been a God-send,” said Threats.
Program participants are people who are already working in local schools as classroom aides and other support staff who just need an extra boost to obtain their teaching license. They either have an associate's degree or 60 credits of college-level general education courses, and PPP puts them on the fast track to a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, special education, or elementary education.
“We’re pretty much already doing the job of a teacher, but this is helping me to get the paperwork that goes along with it,” Threats said.
Last year, shortly after graduating from the College of Southern Nevada with her associate's degree, Threats was trying to figure out her next steps when an ad for the program popped up on social media.
“It was something that just came across my page,” she said. “I am happy with my current role, but I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.”
She applied and got accepted into the first cohort.
The new program is part of an expanded effort by UNLV’s College of Education — with funds from the university, CCSD, and state grants, totaling about $9 million — to add up to 425 pre-service educators to the local teaching workforce.
Filling open teaching positions in CCSD — which usually number about 2,000 annually, according to Varner — is one goal. The other is to ensure that more and more teachers in CCSD reflect the students they teach, the vast majority of whom are students of color.
“I think it’s crucial that our kids see faces at the front of the classroom that look like them,” said Maria Romero, a PPP student studying elementary education. “My kids know that if I’m a teacher, they can be a teacher too.”
Nationally, 79% of U.S. public school teachers identified as non-Hispanic White during the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Varner says PPP is unique because it's a reversal of the national demographics: 70% of paraprofessionals identify as nonwhite.
“The district has a really vested interest in changing the demographics of their teachers, while also making sure they have enough teachers,” Varner said. “Here they have a whole pool of people who, representationally, look much more like the students that CCSD serves, and do not look like the teaching force. But they’re not licensed. So this program is saying: let’s change that.”
And Threats immediately bought in.
“We’re going to fill open positions at our own schools,” she said.
Two decades ago, Threats began her college career as an education major. Teaching, “a labor of love” as she fondly calls it, was always something she wanted to do, but then life happened.
Shortly after she began her studies, she developed severe vision problems which led to legal blindness.
“At the beginning, I tried to keep up with my studies, but then I completely stopped going,” she said.
A few years later, she received cornea transplants and started the journey of rebuilding her life. She worked at daycares and taught Sunday school at her church, and in 2014, joined CCSD as support staff.
“We are right beside our teachers all day, every day,” Threats said. “We help with lesson planning, small groups, data collection, testing, making sure students are hitting their developmental milestones. We’re doing the job but without the teacher benefits.”
The PPP kicked off in summer 2021 with its first cohort, and the second class of students began their coursework this spring.
To date, participants include those who are working in some capacity in the classroom, like Threats, who is an instructional aide in a pre-K special education classroom at Earl N. Jenkins Elementary School in Las Vegas, or like Romero, a coordinator for the Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates program, where she teaches employability skills to high school students.
UNLV is working hand-in-hand with CCSD to ensure that PPP participants finish the necessary hours of student teaching during their work day — in addition to taking a rigorous combination of in-person, hybrid and online classes at UNLV. Officials hope to expand the program soon to support staff who don’t work directly in the classroom every day, like librarians and school bus drivers.
“We’re looking at viable, sustainable models of educator preparation that is a statewide collective effort,” Varner said. “That’s the long-term goal with PPP and our other programming.”
If Threats has anything to say about it, she thinks the program will make real inroads because it’s “getting the people that have a heart for this.”
“Even with the challenges, financial and otherwise, that we face every day, we still return,” she said. “I get at least one hug every day when I come to work. What a beautiful thing. A lot of people can’t say that.”
She plans to stay at Jenkins Elementary once she finishes the program and graduates from UNLV this summer. But by the time the new school year rolls around in August, she'll be at the head of the classroom.
“I’m really looking forward to the first day of school - the first day of me being a teacher.”