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Trailblazers: NIU, ECC salute first cohort of Elementary Ed graduates via PLEDGE

May 10, 2021
Paige Bohne and Janet Guadarrama
Paige Bohne and Janet Guadarrama

Fifteen newly minted teachers are ready to return to the school districts where they grew up and, thanks to a partnership between Elgin Community College and Northern Illinois University, never really left.

The students completed their first two years at ECC and then, with no relocation or commute required, earned their B.S.Ed. degrees in Elementary Education with Bilingual/ESL endorsement from the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction – in Elgin and not in DeKalb.

Removing that potential barrier to a four-year degree is just one tool in NIU College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper’s PLEDGE (Partnering to Lead and Empower District-Grown Educators) initiative, which is confronting the teacher shortage and supplying classrooms with a culturally diverse workforce.

Even better for students in the Elgin area: The ECC-to-NIU College of Education degree paths open to them are accessible, affordable and designed specifically to meet and support the needs of place-bound, working adults with family responsibilities.

Leaders from both institutions now expect the new graduates will find jobs in the Elgin area, providing children with empathetic teachers who bring a lifelong familiarity and understanding of the community and its families.

“Congratulations for choosing to come into the best profession in the world – being a teacher. You are the first cohort. You are trailblazers,” Elish-Piper told the group during a May 7 celebration on the ECC campus.

We started with 15, and 15 finished on time and will be graduating. That is just remarkable,” Elish-Piper added. “My colleagues in higher education will tell us that, ordinarily, 100% retention and graduation is the goal, but oftentimes not the reality. I am so excited and impressed.”

Elgin Community College President David Sam and Laurie Elish-Piper, dean of the NIU College of Education

Elgin Community College President David Sam and Laurie Elish-Piper, dean of the NIU College of Education

Graduates are Paige Bohne, Berenice Carbajal, Jamie Eubanks, Janet Guadarrama, Magdalena Haro, Esmeralda Mondragon Herrera, Lisset Jasso, Alicia Ledesma, Justin Lung, Thalia Marron, Maegan Monaghen, Afshan Mufti, Alondra Salazar, Mitzi Salmeron and Ashley Soss.

David Sam, president of Elgin Community College, told those new teachers that their future students will remember their names forever.

“Whenever anyone asks me about people who’ve had the greatest impact on me, I mention my parents, and I mention teachers – among them my third-grade teacher, Miss Elizabeth,” Sam said.

“She couldn’t imagine the impact she’s made on my life all of these years, and I know that you are going to make these lasting impacts on students. You may not see the impact on many of them, but here I am, close to 50 years later, talking about Miss Elizabeth,” he added. “Students will be saying the same things about you for generations to come.”

Rick Mao, dean of Communications & Behavioral Sciences at ECC, also saluted the new alumni.

“You are coming in at the right time. The school districts are searching for qualified teachers, and you are the new crop who came up with the newest training and the best practices in education,” Mao said. “They are ready for you, and you are ready for them.”

Mao also urged the 15 to “do the best you can.”

“Once you become a teacher in the schools, please consider what kind of adults will be our future citizens in our society. They should be knowledgeable, they should be competitive and they should be ethical – and you can make that happen,” Mao said. “Many of the social happenings are related to our previous education, one away or another, so when we are joining this force, we need to do our best to make it happen for our future, and it rests upon you now.”

Janet Guadarrama
Janet Guadarrama

Janet Guadarrama is on board.

“I want to be a teacher because I want to give back to my community,” said Guadarrama, an alumna of Elgin U-46 schools.

“Growing up, I had parents who didn’t speak English, and so I want to be that teacher who provides parents and students with resources,” she added, “who just gives them that motivation to continue going to school, getting them involved in the classroom and just being that support system for them.”

Becoming a Huskie able to take her NIU coursework on the ECC campus and complete her clinical and student-teaching placements locally in U-46 “made it perfect for me,” she said. “I got to stay at home, be with my family – I have younger siblings I like to look after – and attend a college I really want to attend. It really helped me financially.”

Guadarrama hopes to teach at the fourth- or fifth-grade level, where children are old enough to share their opinions to guide lesson planning, and is also hopeful to work this summer as a paraprofessional at U-46’s Harriet Gifford Elementary School.

She also is proud of her new NIU bachelor’s degree.

“It proves that I put in the hard work,” she said, “and that I’m ready and prepared to provide my students with the education that they deserve and that they will need to grow into the best versions of themselves.”

Justin Lung
Justin Lung

Justin Lung of Burlington, who grew up in Central Community Unit School District 301, shares that aspiration.

“Supporting the next generation of students is really important to me. I’ve always had a passion for helping others, so I definitely found my spot in becoming a teacher, and I’ve never looked back since,” Lung said.

“I want to have a lifelong impact on my students,” he added. “I want them to be lifelong learners.”

NIU coursework showed him how to differentiate instruction for the diversity of students he will teach; he also learned how to integrate multiple subject areas within his lessons to make them fun for students while also meeting state standards.

He appreciates the structure of the program.

“It was a really good transition from Elgin Community College. We had great support from the academic advisors – Christy Schweitzer was a great help with that as well – and they met with our ECC advisors to make sure all the courses transferred,” Lung said. “Everything worked out. Everything was planned so nicely. I’m really happy.”

Paige Bohne was motivated by her own second-grade teacher – Wendy Hasto is still teaching second-grade at Willard Elementary School in U-46 – to join the profession.

Paige Bohne
Paige Bohne

“She truly inspired me with how she was with the children,” Bohne said. “I think that just seeing the relationship you can build with your students is so empowering.”

Bohne knows she has the right tools, including important strategies in classroom management.

“When I heard that ECC and NIU were coming together, I thought that was a really great opportunity,” she said. “NIU is really awesome. Everyone is so communicative, and they always want to help you. Every time you have a question, they’re right there to answer it.”

Magdalena Haro has been asking and answering questions for years – as an amateur, that is.

During childhood summers in Carpentersville, she would bring textbooks at home to teach her young relatives.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. That’s something I have a passion for,” Haro said. “I come from a big family, so I guess I’ve always had a nurturing side to me. I babysat all of my little nephews – I have about 20 of them – so I pretty much had my own classroom growing up.”

Magdalena Haro
Magdalena Haro

Haro’s “real” classroom for the last year in U-46 provided a reminder of her potential to help children establish an academic foundation, set learning goals and prepare for the next level.

She also witnessed growth: Some of the children she taught were able to climb four grade levels in their reading through consistent practice.

Meanwhile, she also experienced confirmation of her long-held ambition to teach second-grade. “They’re still little enough that they still want those hugs, and they still want to be cared for, and want that affection,” she said, “but they’re old enough to enjoy school and love being in school.”

Like the others in her cohort, Haro enrolled in NIU’s program at ECC so she could stay at home while earning her bachelor’s degree.

That decision proved hugely significant in an unexpected way: His name is Mycah, and he is two months old.

“I actually had a baby in the middle of student-teaching. I was like nine months pregnant going into student-teaching and doing all of that – staying up late, doing my lesson plans, prepping for the next day,” Haro said.

“Even after having the baby and coming back, and doing my lesson plans and taking care of a crying baby, definitely was a challenge in trying to balance my personal life and my school life,” she added, “but I’m here, so obviously I made it!”

Haro believes that her NIU pedigree shows that she is educated, loves working with children and can manage classrooms.

The program is designed for place-bound adults with family responsibilies, and was perfect for new graduate Lisset Jasso and her 4-year-old son, Julian Garcia.

The ECC-to-NIU College of Education degree path in Elementary Education was designed for place-bound adults with family responsibilities, and was perfect for new graduate Lisset Jasso and her 4-year-old son, Julian Garcia.

“It tells people that I do care about students, and that I’m passionate about what I’m doing,” said Haro, who already has secured a teaching position in District 300. “I want to give back to my community. I want to be there for my students who come from a similar background as myself.”

Such is one of the objectives of Elish-Piper’s PLEDGE program, which includes the collaboration with ECC.

Twenty more Elementary Education majors are enrolled in the second cohort, and another 20 are expected to enroll this fall.

By the spring of 2023, NIU should have graduated 55 new elementary school teachers from this program, most of whom are likely to teach in U-46 or nearby District 300. The college also is launching cohorts this fall for Early Childhood Education and Special Education majors.

Elish-Piper envisioned the model in 2015, when she was acting dean, and reached out to ECC’s Parul Raval with the idea. Raval is a doctoral alumna of Elish-Piper and on faculty with the Education department at ECC.

Bohne, Guadarrama, Haro, Lung and the others in the inaugural cohort now stand as “proof that this kind of partnership can work,” Elish-Piper said.

“It’s so exciting to see that not only did we make this a reality. This truly was a partnership from the beginning, and I hope that you’re equally proud to be ECC graduates and now NIU graduates because we’re proud of all of you,” she said.

“To be a teacher truly is to be part of the backbone of our democratic society. The work that teachers do in their classrooms every single day makes differences not only for the individual students and their families but for our communities and our nation,” she added.

“The social justice work that you do by making education accessible – by believing in every child, by seeing the assets and the strengths that every single student brings into that classroom – makes a difference, and that’s how we change the world and make Elgin and Illinois and this nation better.”

NIU Christy Schweitzer, Elementary Education Program advisor; Tammy Scheibe, Elementary and Middle-School Field Placement coordinator; and Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development.

Christy Schweitzer, NIU Elementary Education Program advisor; Tammy Scheibe, NIU Elementary and Middle-School Field Placement coordinator; and Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development in the NIU College of Education.

She urged the students to remain connected with NIU and invited them to eventually host NIU clinical placements and student-teachers.

“You will share your passion and your experiences and your wisdom and your encouragement with them,” she said, “and you will help us all work together to continue growing the next generation of teachers.”

President Sam agreed.

“I always say on campus that we touch not only the students in front of us but that we touch families. We touch generations of people – and that is what you are doing,” Sam said. “Because of what you’ve been able to do, we are asking NIU to do more programs so that more students will benefit from this kind of arrangement.”