Special needs students inspired Reina Socarras. Her brother has special needs, and working with him has made her appreciate their resilience.
“They live day by day,” the Payson High School student said recently. “They don’t see the bad things about life.”
She added, “I want to show them there’s nothing wrong with them.”
Thanks to a growing program at PHS called Education Professions, students like Socarras gain real-life teaching experience and graduate high school with 12 college credits. The program also allows America’s future teachers the chance to win scholarships and gain leadership experience through the affiliated organization, Future Educators Association (FEA).
After Arizona emerges from its budget crisis, having laid off multitudes of teachers, a crisis will loom, said program leader Ingrid Schon.
“Given the climate, there’s going to be a huge teacher shortage in about five years because everybody’s leaving the state,” she said.
The program started last year, but its teacher left the school. Schon, who lived in the Valley for years before moving to Payson, had credentials that dovetailed perfectly with the program.
Schon has spent her career working with aspiring teachers, and has taught graduate-level courses at the University of Ottawa in Phoenix.
She started Payson’s affiliation with FEA, and more students are signing up to the program’s prerequisites, which include a class that focuses on life skills like jobs, careers, taxes and child care.
A teaching career offers local youth a great opportunity for a good job that allows them to stay in town, if they choose, Schon said.
Students often tell her that the cost of college would prohibit them from attending. Schon shows them available scholarships, and guides them toward seeing higher education as a real possibility.
Shelby Tanner wants to be a fifth-grade teacher. “They’re not too young,” she said. But, “they still have energy.”
Heather Mendenhall joked, “They’re not in an identity crisis like in junior high.”
Marissa Garcia works with early education students. “They’re always happy,” she said.
This year, five students are student teaching. However, about 80 students are enrolled in the program.
Students learn skills like classroom management while also learning about child development and effective teaching skills.
Schon said she engages students in hands-on activities so they learn to engage their students.
“That’s the wave of the future,” she said. “It’s not going to be multiple-choice tests.”
Despite the program’s youth, students have already won awards. At a recent FEA state competition, students won five, second-place awards while competing against 36 other schools.
Schon said students seeking to become psychologists or counselors can also join the program.
“Kids in Payson really aren’t aware of the opportunities,” she said.
Schon also said she’s engaging in outreach. She began a teacher of the month program, honoring teachers at the school, and students have also volunteered with local organizations like the Time Out Shelter.
Even with preparation, students say standing in front of the classroom is scary at first.
“It is nerve-wracking, but then you get comfortable,” said Ana Carranza.
Schon says the program will continue to grow.
“All of these kids are going to be leaders,” she said.