LINWOOD — After graduating from Villanova University with a degree in marketing, Antoine Lewis returned to his hometown, where he found his passion in education through a part-time job coaching at his old high school, Mainland Regional High School. Convinced he wanted to teach, and not wanting to give up his current position, Lewis turned to his alma mater, and is now on track to become a certified teacher.
For the thousands of people in New Jersey who find themselves in a similar situation, the state offers an alternate route to teacher certification.
Lewis, 25, of Somers Point, is enrolled in Stockton University’s Alternate Route School of Education, while also teaching history and coaching football, wrestling and track at Mainland.
“You just make it happen,” Lewis said of the time commitment.
Before he was hired as a teacher this year, Lewis started out as an aide, and was able to learn from other teachers in the district, he said. He praised the alternate route program for giving him that opportunity.
“I was able to gain three years of valuable experience working with people that are already certified,” he said. “You can’t really top that.”
In recent years, there has been a slight decline in the number of people achieving certification through the alternate route, according to state Department of Education data. Michael Hinman, director of Stockton’s Alternate Route School of Education, said that could be due to the lack of jobs available.
Since the housing bubble burst, sending the nation’s economy into a tailspin — from which South Jersey has been the slowest to recover — enrollment in the alternate route program at Stockton also has declined. In the past few years, Hinman said, there have been 25 to 30 students enrolled per session.
“It has changed over time based on the economy,” Hinman said. “We have had as many as a 100 at a time.”
Hinman said the alternate route program targets people who are mid-career and looking to make a change, and provides them a chance to pursue that change without being unemployed for the two years it would take to earn a certificate through the traditional route. Starting this year, teachers seeking certification through the alternate route are required to attend a two-year, 400-hour program. This is double the length and time of the previous requirements.
He said there is no “average” alternate route teacher, with participants at Stockton ranging from early 20s to late 60s.
“We have folks that were formerly attorneys, surgeons, PhDs who were professors in universities,” Hinman said. “Alternate route teachers tend to be more diverse ethnically than traditional route (teachers). That’s one of the challenges in American education, so that’s one of the ways it serves schools.”
New Jersey’s alternate route program has been around for three decades. Hinman said schools that hire teachers through the alternate route are usually unable to find certified professionals with certifications in some of the less popular fields, such as chemistry or world language. Or they are hiring people already employed in the district, such as Lewis.
Because the coursework hours have increased under the change in state regulations, Stockton has brought its alternate route program under the umbrella of its graduate program, Hinman said.
“So students who attend our program will finish with 24 graduate credits, most of them on the way to completing a full master’s degree, mostly in special education,” he said.
Mainland Superintendent Mark Marrone said through the alternate route program, the school was able to hire the best candidates for the job. In the last year, Lewis was one of two teachers hired who were pursuing certification through the alternate route. Both were aides first.
“Antoine’s gifted. He’s really great with kids; he’s coached, he was an aide in the district. When he applied, he was hands down the best choice we had,” Marrone said.
Marone said some people don’t support the alternate route, but there are many benefits to the program.
“Why not be an aide in the district, work really hard get to know the kids and the community?” he said. “Taking the alternate route, that’s just basically the final process of certification. How do you not hire them?”