After graduating from college in 2007, Kim Son was ready to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

She took the New Jersey Praxis exam, a six-hour test required to obtain a teaching license. But after failing by seven points, she was afraid to try again. Instead, she landed at the Henry Davis Family School in East Camden, where she has been a teaching assistant for 16 years.

Now, Son, 40, and 14 other classroom aides, also known as paraprofessionals, are getting another chance to earn their certificates at little or no cost through the Camden Education Fund’s new “Teacher Pathway” program, which, through a $150,000 grant, will help them become full-time teachers while working in the classroom. Some, like Son, only need to pass the Praxis; others need to complete coursework toward their degrees.

“I’ve been wanting to be a teacher forever,” said Son. “It’s taken so long.”

Camden, like districts around the country, has grappled with a teacher shortage that is crippling its ability to staff classrooms. The program shows “that some of the strongest talent is already in our schools,” said Naeha Dean, the fund’s executive director. They just need help navigating the requirements to be full-time teachers.

The paraprofessionals, many with years of classroom experience, have been enrolled in Camden U, a nonprofit hybrid college that administers the pathway program customized for each student with asynchronous learning at their pace. They get counseling, mentoring, and test-prep coaching.

“I’m going to push this thing until I uncover every rock and find every person who wants to earn their certification,” said Khary Golden, executive director of Camden U, which has a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University to provide needed training. “I truly believe this work is a game changer.”

In Camden Public Schools, where 245 paraprofessionals were employed in 2020-21, an entry-level position pays about $22,000 annually, compared with about $53,000 for a new elementary school teacher.

In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree, public school teacher candidates in New Jersey must complete at least 12 weeks as a student teacher, attend a teacher preparation program, and pass the Praxis. (A bill introduced last month in Trenton would eliminate the Praxis requirement, as supporters, including the New Jersey Education Association, say the test is not a fair assessment of teacher quality.)

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Golden said some of the paraprofessionals who already hold bachelor’s degrees will begin taking the three-step Praxis exam later this month and could become teachers by spring 2023. A second cohort already has 14 participants, he said.

Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs applauded the program. The district, which enrolls about 5,200 students in the city’s traditional public schools, recently announced plans to recruit bilingual teachers in Puerto Rico because of shortages. There is no guarantee the paraprofessionals will be hired in Camden, but the district will give them serious consideration, she said.

“Recruiting and retaining the highest-quality educators, school leaders, and support staff is critical to our students’ success, so it is imperative to ensure a great teacher is in every classroom,” McCombs said.

Kim Son: Getting past the test

Son, who was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in 1989, graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. She earned a bachelor’s in sociology from Rowan University, the first in her large family to graduate from college.

She struggled with the Praxis, mainly, she said, because of the language barrier (Vietnamese and Cambodian are her first languages). She was devastated when she failed, and slightly embarrassed.

“I never thought of going back,” she admitted. “It’s so hard. I didn’t have the mentality or focus to move on. I felt like a failure.”

At Davis, Son’s bilingual skills became an asset with parents. Currently, she assists two kindergarten co-teachers, helping out wherever needed with lessons, meals, and class management.

”When she does become a teacher, she’s going to be great,” said Samantha Yaworski, one of the lead teachers. “I think she will be fantastic.”

Son, the mother of three, said becoming a teacher would go further to help pay her bills and $50,000 in student loan debt. She also wants to show her children to never give up.

”I don’t want them to follow my footsteps and struggles,” she said softly. “It’s time for me to show I can do it.”

Tashia Dotson: Fourth time’s the charm

Tashia Dotson, 30, a paraprofessional at Forest Hill Elementary School, believes the fourth time’s the charm.

Born and raised in Camden, Dotson, once a teenage mother, enrolled in college three times to get a bachelor’s degree. But life seemed to get in the way and she was forced to drop out of Rowan University.

Eventually, Dotson worked as a nursing assistant for several years before joining the Camden district as a substitute. For the last six years, she’s been a paraprofessional: ”I always loved working with children,” Dotson said. “It means a lot to me.”

On a recent morning in Nicole Buttery’s special-education class, Dotson attentively carried out her one-on-one duties with a student. She jubilantly sang along as the class belted out a good morning song.

”She helps with any kid. She’s such a team player,” said Buttery. “I think she’s on a good path to be successful.”

Dotson said she believes she will be able to reach her goal of getting her degree and becoming a teacher because the program allows her the needed flexibility to work, study, and raise her two children. She is starting over, without any credits, so it could take several years.

“I don’t have any doubt in my head that I’m going to get these credits. I have to do this,” she said. “This is the most comfortable and confident I feel with this program.”

Terrell Russell: He finally found his passion

After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 2005, Terrell Russell worked odd jobs for several years and took college courses at night. An athlete, he thought about becoming a health and physical education teacher.

Russell, 35, eventually found his passion as a substitute teacher in 2013 in Camden schools. He enjoys working with students and mentoring, especially at-risk children in his hometown.

Russell said a recent experience working closely with a troubled student helped confirm his desire to become a teacher, as well as serve as a Black male role model. His wife, Amber, is a school counselor.

Now, the long-term first-grade teacher at the Riletta T. Cream Family School is on a mission to get his credentials for the classroom. With a bachelor’s from Rowan, he must pass the Praxis.

One of six siblings, Russell believes support from mentors like Golden will help him pass the teaching test. He didn’t really study for the two he failed. But this time, he aced the prep course.

“It wasn’t planned to be this long,” Russell said. “I know I can do it.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.