By Kailey Fisicaro • The Bulletin

A program at Jefferson County School District is allowing staffers who want to become teachers to go to school and student-teach — all while working full time with benefits.

The partnership between the school district and George Fox University, called Grow Your Own, has allowed four Jefferson County educational assistants to continue working full time while they are placed in student-teaching positions at Warm Springs K-8 Academy.

The 20-month completion program is headed by Katy Turpen, director of elementary education degree completion and an associate professor with the university. As she pointed out, most student teachers are not paid.

Five students total took part in the program over the past two years, including the four educational assistants from Jefferson County School District and one substitute educational assistant in Crook County.

The first year of the program was coursework — classes took place for the teachers in training at the Jefferson County School District office on Tuesday nights and one Saturday a month. All of the student teachers came into the program with an associate’s degree and graduated Saturday with a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential.

This is the first class of Central Oregon students to graduate from the program, according to Turpen, who herself relocated to the area to oversee it. The university’s goal is continue to advance the program with other school districts.

Earlier this month, on site at Warm Springs K-8, Turpen described how the four student teachers there had become a part of the school culture. One of the student teachers, Krysten Saldaña, was already working at Warm Springs K-8 as an educational assistant. The other Jefferson County student teachers were working at Madras High School as educational assistants.

Those in the program were viewed as educational assistants in the eyes of the district, but in the classroom, any onlooker should see them co-teaching with their mentor teachers, Turpen explained.

Most often, the student teacher and mentor teacher would split the classes up into two groups to work with them separately, Turpen said.

Earlier this month, Saldaña pulled half of her fourth grade class out to teach in an open space between classrooms. While about 10 kids sat at a table around her, Saldaña used a whiteboard and counting cubes to teach the same lesson her co-teacher was inside the classroom.

For Saldaña, a Native American who grew up in Warm Springs, having the opportunity to give back to her community through the special program has been ideal, if a lot of work.

From a young age, Saldaña knew she wanted to work with kids. In high school she worked as a teaching assistant over summers at the Warm Springs Early Childhood Education Center. But at that time she thought she wanted to work in healthcare with young children. She earned her pre-requisites for nursing from Central Oregon Community College. After getting married, moving away, having her daughter, then getting a divorce and moving back to Warm Springs, exactly what she wanted to do with her career began settling in for Saldaña.

“I wanted to make a difference and be a part of our community and a part of the youth in our community,” Saldaña said. While working as an educational assistant at Warm Springs K-8, one of her colleagues pointed out the Grow Your Own program to her.

“I didn’t apply to George Fox University thinking I was going to get in,” Saldaña said. “I thought to myself, ‘If I get in it’s what I’m supposed to do.’”

Saldaña found out about and applied for the program a couple weeks after the other four students had started.

“If i want something — and like I always tell my students — if you want something bad enough, you make it happen,” Saldaña said. She quickly caught up on the coursework and maintained straight As for the remainder of the program.

Juggling so many roles — educational assistant, student, teacher, not to mention mom — was no easy task. But Saldaña, 24, said she drew strength from her community, her students and especially her 5-year-old daughter, a kindergartner at Warm Springs K-8 who is proud to share with others that her mom is a teacher on campus.

From before Saldaña pursued her teaching credential through the program, she heard encouraging words from students. They’d tell her “Ms. Saldaña, you should be a teacher,” she said, laughing.

It’s one thing to hear compliments from colleagues, Saldaña said, but hearing them from students is even better.

Student teachers in the program get a discounted tuition rate from George Fox University — $480 per credit — for what ends up being about 60 credits total, according to Turpen.

Saldaña said because she is a tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, she was able to get help with tuition so that it was fully covered.

“I owe everything to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs,” Saldaña said, adding she hopes in the future that her students, many of them also tribal members, take advantage of the community support.

“The opportunity is out there for these students, so if I can help to push them to have a career and do whatever it takes to have a happy life, I will,” Saldaña said.

In school too, Saldaña said, the support has been immense. Warm Springs K-8 Principal Ken Parshall, who beginning next year will also serve as district superintendent, and Assistant Principal Chris Wyland “have been there for every need,” Saldaña said, and coworkers never made her feel like a student teacher, but rather, an equal.

Still, there was one little voice at home that had a big impact: her daughter’s.

“There have been times when I’ve sat down and been emotional and my daughter says ‘Mommy, you can do this,’” Saldaña said.

While she doesn’t yet know if she will get a teaching job at Warm Springs K-8, she would love to stay.

“I love it — it’s a job that I love,” Saldaña said. “I know that a lot of people look for careers that make a lot of money, but if you choose a job, and you love it, then you go above and beyond.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,