Guadalupe Center’s solution to teacher shortage: Recruit, train and certify parents

In Immokalee, 31.7% of the town’s total population, or 7,785 residents, are 18 years old or younger. That is a lot of students. In fact, it’s more than three times the percentage of school-age children living in Naples.

Such a high proportion of students in Immokalee means the community needs an equally high proportion of teachers. Unfortunately, Immokalee also has one of the nation’s lowest rates of educational attainment. Just 46.4% of Immokalee adults have a high school diploma, half the rate of Naples, and only 6.5% of Immokalee adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 58.3% in Naples.

The Florida Department of Education has strict educational and credentialing requirements for teachers at all levels – early learning centers as well as elementary, middle and high schools. In a community like Immokalee, there are limited qualified, credentialed teachers in this job market.

In early 2022, the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida reported that more than three dozen child care centers in Collier and Lee counties had closed since the pandemic began. Lack of students was not to blame. Rather, the centers could not find qualified teachers.

Meanwhile, Guadalupe Center was preparing to open its second new early learning campus in three years. It would provide additional Immokalee families with access to a high-quality early childhood education. A big question emerged, though: Where are you going to find teachers?

To open the van Otterloo Family Campus for Learning, Guadalupe Center would need 28 early childhood teachers, which must have a high school diploma or equivalent, earn a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential and complete a 45-hour training course through the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Workforce Development Strategy

Before the pandemic, Guadalupe Center’s leadership team had already begun mapping out a workforce development strategy. It would be no small task – they would need to find teachers in a community with few teachers… but it happened. The van Otterloo campus was fully staffed when it opened in the summer of 2022.

These steps allowed Guadalupe Center to fill its teaching vacancies:

Step 1: Hire a Specialist

Guadalupe Center hired a full-time recruitment, training and curriculum specialist to help oversee hiring initiatives, as well as implement new professional development programs and educational incentives. The goal was to ensure highly trained, highly qualified teachers are providing instruction.

Step 2: Establish Partnerships

As a nonprofit, Guadalupe Center looked to curriculum and professional development experts to be a resource for its curriculum specialist, so it began collaborating with education programs at Drexel University, Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College. The partnership with Drexel was especially fruitful because the entire School of Education, including professors and administrators, became an extension of Guadalupe Center.

Step 3: Build Financial Support

With a waiting list that exceeded 500 students, Guadalupe Center recognized the demand for a high-quality early learning program. Rich and Helene Monaghan, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, and other visionary leaders opened their hearts so students in Immokalee could enjoy the same educational opportunities as their peers in Naples, Marco Island, Bonita Springs and other communities.

Step 4: Offer Competitive Compensation

In general, education is not a high-paying career field, and early learning teachers are among the lowest-paid, credentialed educators. Guadalupe Center reevaluated pay for teachers while offering bonuses to every current educator who pursued a higher level of certification, including associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Step 5: Identify Potential Candidates

Immokalee’s remote location makes it difficult to attract teachers from Naples, Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres who have ample job opportunities closer to their homes. In addition to pursuing traditional recruitment strategies, Guadalupe Center began targeting Immokalee residents, including parents of current and former students, recent high school graduates who are exploring a career in education and retirees who want to make a difference in the lives of local children.

Step 6: Training and Certification

Finances are a challenge for individuals working toward a career, so Guadalupe Center compensated candidates during their training and covered all costs for licensure and certification. As teachers obtained their academic credentials required by the state, Guadalupe Center’s training program showcased the basics of teaching, such as setting up a classroom, implementing a curriculum and managing a classroom full of children.

Step 7: Refinement of Skills

Although teachers hired through this program demonstrated the skills and knowledge to become a teacher, Guadalupe Center established an ongoing training and on-the-job performance review system that allows teachers to continually enhance their classroom leadership ability. Immediate feedback is critical for new hires in any industry.

Inspired, dedicated and compassionate teachers provide a safe, nurturing environment for children to thrive academically, emotionally and behaviorally. They can fuel students’ passions and guide them down the path of success. Quite simply, teachers transform lives by creating endless possibilities and a cycle of prosperity that can span generations.