WESTMINSTER, Colo. — The teacher shortage in Colorado and across the nation is dire.
Unfilled teaching positions increased 64 percent at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).
Diversity and representation in education is also lacking.
According to CDE data, the total enrollment in teacher preparation programs in the 2020-2021 school year was 69.4% white. Of those who completed the programs, 14.8 percent were Hispanic and just 3.2 percent were Black.
To help address these gaps, there's a new teacher preparation program that's expanding access to a teaching degree, at little to no-cost.
"I'm a crier so my eyes are welling up on this one," said Maureen Bangsund.
Bangsund is the education and training teacher at Westminster High School. She's a teacher that teaches teaching and has many future educators in her classes.
"From day one, [Gabe] was really vocal about his passion for wanting to be a teacher," she said.
Her 17-year-old student, Gabe Ballesteros, wants to be an educator one day, too.
"All together we're going to get it done," said Ballesteros. "It's just the community of it."
Bangsund already knows Ballesteros will be a teacher who inspires.
"That’s what we need in the classroom is individuals that are just so welcoming and care so much about what they’re doing and who they’re working with that they’re making that impact immediately," she said.
She knows he belongs in the classroom because she's already seen the impact he's made on preschool students.
"This student drew a picture of them and Gabe was huge in the picture, you know?" she said. "When that kid saw Gabe, he just went running... he remembered that connection they had built so quickly."
Ballesteros is a senior, with a bright future.
"When she was talking about my students in my classroom, it definitely gave me a sense of, 'I'm going to be there someday,'" he said. "It's coming and this is how I'm going to get there."
But, the path to a career in teaching wasn't always this clear.
Barriers like time and cost for an education can deter a lot of students from getting into the field.
"We're trying to build in all of the exciting pieces about going to college in something that's more accessible and accelerated, so students are able to get to their living wages sooner," said Kelly Mitchell. "It’s just trying to knock down those walls so more of our students are able to do what they really love."
Mitchell is a former teacher and administrator. She's the founder and CEO of Inclusive Design Group, which is focused on improving access and opportunities to students who have been traditionally excluded.
Now, she's working with educators like Bangsund, and future educators like Ballesteros, to build a low-to-no cost, accelerated teacher preparation program. In this program, students start their teaching degree as high school sophomores.
"By the time they're 20-21, they have a bachelor's degree that they didn't have to pay for, teaching experience and they'll be able to go straight into the classroom," said Kelly. "This could change the game, right?"
The program aims to get more rural teachers and teachers of color trained and in front of the classroom.
"This program is exactly what I've been dreaming about for the past maybe like three years," said Ballesteros. "I want it to keep building, the expansion of diversity of everywhere in education."
Mitchell said teaching is a hard sell to a lot of people, so it's important to get the ones who are passionate into that space.
"A lot of the impetus behind this program is if students are having access to people who look like them as their own teachers, we know and data shows that that's good for every student," she said.
This accelerated teacher preparation program is being piloted in the Morgan, Callahan, Westminster and Englewood school districts.
Mitchell said they hope it will become a statewide program in the future.
More reporting by Courtney Yuen: