Grow Your Own program builds teaching careers

Waxahachie ISD has cultivated employees into full-time teachers through its Grow your Own program.

Waxahachie ISD was awarded more than $108,000 through the Grow Your Own grant in February 2020 to provide more opportunities for current employees to advance their careers within the district. This program addressed efforts to transition paraprofessionals, instructional aides, and long-term substitute teachers to full-time certified teacher roles. 

woman standing in classroom

Shelly Smith, a proud product of the program, jumped on the opportunity that granted monies to pay for remaining college hours associated with a bachelor’s degree and the alternative teacher certification. 

The 2001 Waxahachie High School graduate is in her tenth year working in the district.

“That’s something I’m very proud of because I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Smith said while sitting in her very own kindergarten classroom. “Never once did I think about going anywhere else.”

Smith served her first six years with the district as a special education aide at Shackelford Elementary and then transitioned to a structured learning environment aide role for two years. She then spent two years at Felty Elementary as a special education aide.

Participants in the Grow Your Own program were guaranteed a job in WISD upon successful completion of their degree programs and certification testing. Upon Smith’s graduation from the program, she was hired as a kindergarten teacher at Felty Elementary.

Smith was raised by parents who were active in youth ministry, which familiarized her with influencing children. Before working for WISD, Smith taught at a daycare, where she realized her true passion was working with children.

“It is different,” Smith explained about the transition from aide to teacher. “Being a teacher comes with more responsibility, but I love it. I love being the teacher and the person they [students] come to. It’s fun.” As a surprise to her, tears began to fill Smith’s eyes as she said, “These kids, they are my ‘why.’ They are the reason I do what I do.”

As a first-year teacher, Smith is looking forward to bringing her own creativity to the classroom and focus on individualized learning.

Smith said she feels thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to continue her higher education academics to achieve the occupation of her dreams. The Grow Your Own program served as a weight lifted off her shoulders and a light that motivated her to finish her degree. Knowing she was deserving of the grant also served as encouragement.

“I’m just thankful that WISD took that chance on me,” Smith said. “They didn’t have to and it’s a blessing. It makes me feel like they [WISD] believe in me too.”

The 2020-22 Grown Your Own Grant Program — sponsored by the Texas Education Agency —helped the district take a targeted approach in growing WISD’s own paraprofessionals into certified teachers. This grant was also aimed at addressing shortages in traditionally hard-to-staff areas and closing the demographic gap between students and teachers. 

To qualify for the Grow Your Own program, a WISD employee had to have 75 percent of their undergraduate degree programs completed. Or, if a current employee already obtained a bachelor’s degree and had the desire to earn their teacher certifications, they had the opportunity to earn an alternative certification through the cohort program at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. 

A total of four employees were selected for the Grow Your Own program and three have completed it so far, including Mary Scheuler, who teaches life skills at Felty, and Marcus Swift, who coaches and teaches social studies at Howard Junior High.

Director of Human Resources Theresa Burkhalter worked closely with the grant and said, “This is a great program for WISD because it encourages existing paraprofessional staff members to grow and meet their professional goals. This helps to grow the district from within which is a win-win situation for WISD.”