OGDEN — Though he made no specific commitments, Rep. Rob Bishop was generally supportive of a unique teacher preparation program at Weber State while meeting with dozens of current and former participants in the program Friday evening.

The program, called Teacher Assistant Pathway to Teaching (TAPT), helps current teaching assistants who are already employed by local public school districts to earn bachelor’s degrees and teaching licenses. It is the only teacher preparation program of its kind in Utah.

“The whole point of having paraprofessionals in the program is that they already know what they’re up against in a school, and so ... once they graduate, their retention rate is much higher,” said Shana Fannin, a TAPT participant and paraprofessional working at H. Guy Child Elementary in Weber School District. “I think it’s wise to keep recruiting paraprofessionals for this program for that reason ... we know what we’re getting into.”

The program has a graduation rate of 96%.

In the most recent application cycle, 50 paraprofessionals applied to be part of TAPT. Due to limits in funding, only eight were accepted.

After hearing several stories of TAPT participants, many of whom said they would not have been able to return to college without TAPT, Bishop asked program leaders and students questions about the potential of expanding the program

“I appreciate everything you’ve told me about this so far,” Bishop said. “And the sad part about this is — and maybe you have to answer this question — how do you expand this to make it bigger? ... Because Utah is in a teacher shortage crisis right now. ... Or am I looking at a program that is the right size now, it does something good and if you try to expand it, you screw everything up?”

“Could we expand it? Only if we had more funding,” said Shirley Dawson, associate professor of special education and director of the TAPT program at Weber State. “... The capacity exists. And the university here at Weber has everything in place to grow the program.”

As participants in the program, TAPT students receive $4,000 in tuition support per year and meet together with other students monthly to provide each other with academic and emotional support.

Some course requirements are waived for TAPT participants, and they also receive special counseling on the best coursework to take, which contributes to the program’s high graduation rate, Dawson said.

Approximately 40 students are currently in the program.

TAPT was once much bigger. Before the Great Recession, there were more than 100 participants.

Each year, the program costs $600,000 per year to run, including all costs. The program receives federal, state and private funding.

Participating school districts support the program by working with paraprofessionals to create work schedules that allow them to complete their schooling.

“The five feeding school districts got together in 1994-1995. They decided that ... they didn’t want to lose these paraprofessionals, that they would make great teachers,” said Chloe Merrill, associate dean of Weber State’s Moyes College of Education.

“TAPT was born out of a district need coming together and asking for it,” Dawson said.

Participants in the meeting said they would also like to see the program expand to other colleges to help with the state’s teacher shortage.

Bishop set up a meeting with the group after being invited by Weber State faculty and students during their visit to his Washington, D.C., office over the summer.

The purpose of their visit was “to provide updates on the positive impact of federal legislation for teacher preparation in northern Utah,” Dawson said in an email.

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