Center for Educator Success Makes Alternative Teacher Certification Work for Schools and Aspiring Educators

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February 17, 2023 by HCDE Communications

Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Educator Success (CES) is reimagining how alternative teacher certification programs support aspiring educators and districts facing teacher shortages.

In its first year of a three-year partnership with the Spring Independent School District, the CES has created a customized teacher certification program in line with the district’s “Grow Your Own” approach, which promotes talented district staff members.

Spring ISD Superintendent Lupita Hinojosa, right, speaks to the Center for Educator Success cohort in Spring ISD, February 8, 2023.

“We believe we have the talent within our own district. We have a strategic plan and part of our work is growing and developing our own people,” said Spring ISD Superintendent Lupita Hinojosa, Ed.D. “I knew HCDE had an ACP program. However, we never used it. When I became superintendent a year ago, I met with HCDE Superintendent James Colbert, and he offered support. He asked me what I needed, and I said, ‘I’m looking for teachers.’”

The certification program, developed through the CES’ New Teacher Institute and which personalizes services to districts based on their evolving needs, was exactly what Hinojosa was looking for.

“In order for us to get into this project, it meant that it had to be custom tailored to us. And that’s what we’ve enjoyed,” said Hinojosa. “We have what is called ‘Spring Way Systems and Routines.’ And in our contract, the CES agreed that they would use our systems and routines, and our curriculum. We wanted our staff, our workforce development director, to be directly involved with the curriculum that was being designed. We were very clear in designing the program specifically for us.”

Center for Educator Success cohort in Spring ISD, February 8, 2023.

It was important to Hinojosa that the program stayed true to the culture and values of the district, so she engaged her leadership and the CES in deep discussions.

“We did a lot of negotiations, enough so that we made a commitment for three years. We don’t take commitments that tie up your money for three years lightly,” said Hinojosa. “As we were going through the budget process, I was able to put money aside to pay for 15 teachers each year for three years, meaning that by the end of the three years, we would have 45 teachers officially certified, and most importantly, taught by and working with our curriculum, our systems and routines. We’re extremely pleased because the CES was willing to work around our needs and create something from the ground up.”

Hinojosa also wanted to ensure that the program wouldn’t create additional burdens for aspiring educators.

“We wanted it to be held in our location. We didn’t want our people to have to drive,” said Hinojosa. “Even though it’s not too far from here, that’s an extra burden on our teachers. We wanted to make sure that it was done the Spring way and not some other district’s way.”

Through the partnership with HCDE, Spring ISD targets Spring ISD employees who already hold bachelor’s degrees but lack a teacher certification. Spring ISD pays for the cost of the 2-year certification process, eliminating the financial responsibility on teachers.

For Asia Menefee-Lopez, a full-time District of Innovation teacher at Spring ISD’s Heritage Elementary School, the timing of the partnership was just right.

Asia Menefee-Lopez, right, during a cohort activity in Spring ISD, February 8, 2023.

“I would like to be a certified teacher,” said Menefee-Lopez, who previously worked in Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. “I wanted to be in a classroom where I could reach more students. I see that there’s a huge teacher shortage and teachers were really impactful in my life. I would love to be someone’s role model like that, too.”

“When I was younger, my brother had cancer. So a lot of the time we focused on him and not on me,” said an emotional Menefee-Lopez. “It was hard, but my teachers were very encouraging. They really built my confidence up, encouraged me to keep going and told me that it was okay to have my own life.”

To address the nationwide trend of teacher shortages in Texas, the Texas Education Agency allows uncertified individuals like Menefee-Lopez to be hired by a school in a District of Innovation, as long as they are in the process of getting certified.

Menefee-Lopez, who was looking to make a career change, first heard about the opportunity to teach at Spring ISD through a friend who was employed with the district.

“She said, ‘My job is hiring for teachers and you don’t have to have a certification, you just need a bachelor’s degree,’’ said Menefee-Lopez. “When I started at Spring ISD, I was the teacher of record, so I was hired as an actual teacher, and it was my job to find a program to get certified in. I was looking at other popular programs, but a lot of those are really expensive. There was talk in the district of something coming along, where the expenses would be covered. So, I waited a while and that’s when this program came along.”

Center for Educator Success cohort in Spring ISD, February 8, 2023.

Thirteen Spring ISD employees were tapped to join the inaugural Spring ISD New Teacher Institute cohort, which began in November of 2022. The cohort meets once a week on Wednesdays for a total of 18 weeks.

“I love my cohort. I love being able to come in and talk to other people and brainstorm with each other,” said Menefee-Lopez. “If I don’t understand something, maybe they do, so we can talk about it. I think that that’s what really put this program above the rest because you don’t have to do everything by yourself.”

Menefee-Lopez says she is relieved she found a program that would equip her to be successful.

“Personally I know a few people in other teaching certification programs and they don’t feel like they’re actually learning anything. They don’t feel confident. They’re doing it because they have to do it, but they’re not absorbing anything,” said Menefee-Lopez. “I don’t think that I would be as successful if I went with a different program because I know myself. I know that I need a community to help me get through some of these things. And you don’t get that anywhere else.”

The cohort is currently preparing to take content exams, a notoriously difficult battery of exams that teacher candidates must pass before moving on to the second year of the certificate process.

“The 13 that we have in the cohort are truly amazing. They’re a great group who are committed, passionate, and struggling with their content exam prep,” laughs Center for Educator Success Director Cynthia Brunswick. “One of the biggest hurdles to getting their Statement of Eligibility is passing the content exams for their in-service year.”

Center for Educator Success cohort in Spring ISD, February 8, 2023.

One of the unique aspects of the tailored services offered by the CES is the availability and personalized support cohort members receive, including with test prep.

“We’ve been using 240 Tutoring to help us study for our content exams. But we didn’t know how to study, how to use it, and we weren’t doing it,” said Menefee-Lopez. “So the CES brought in the people from 240 Tutoring to show us how to use the software, and how to best study so that we can be successful on our content exams. If we need anything, we know that I can contact anyone on staff at HCDE. Everyone at HCDE is very encouraging and they’re making sure we are going to be successful.”

Though she has not completed her certification yet, Menefee-Lopez says that she already feels like a more prepared educator.

“When I go back to my school and we’re in our professional learning communities and we’re working through lessons, I am using terminology that I’m learning on Wednesdays. My colleagues are like, ‘Wow we don’t even know that you knew that. You’re a first-year teacher, what are you talking about?’ Even the kids are noticing that I’m becoming a better teacher. They’ll say, “You’re really killing it today Ms. Lopez.’”

To learn more about the Center for Educator Success and the programs it offers, visit

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