Mahnoor Khalid, ’24, has always loved working with kids. But when she entered Southern as a freshman in 2020, she hesitated to enroll as an early childhood education major, unsure if it was the right path.
“I didn’t have the experience and wanted to know if this career was the right path for me,” Khalid said.
Then came the NextGen program, a pandemic-inspired collaboration between the state Department of Education and Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) to alleviate Covid-related staffing gaps in K-12.
Khalid sought after the program and was ultimately matched with the Darcey School in Cheshire. She continues to serve as a district employee and gain hands-on experience in the teaching profession.
“Currently, I am a building substitute, but I have been working in a kindergarten classroom for the past four weeks,” Khalid explained. “I keep the classroom organized and also assist students that may need help doing reading, writing, or a math lesson.”
One of two participants in the program thus far, Khalid credits NextGen for helping her to realize that a career in teaching was, in fact, the right career move.
“Although there are some days that have been very difficult and stressful, at the end of the day, I always leave with a smile on my face when my students excitedly wave goodbye to me before they get on the school bus.”
The NextGen program operates in New Haven, Bridgeport, Bristol, Waterbury, and Cheshire, with all four CSCUs participating as of fall 2021. Southern’s partnership is currently exclusive to Cheshire, but university administrators expect the pilot program to expand to Hamden and New Haven in the coming year.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Solan, superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools, the program has brought much-needed relief at a critical time.
“We have been able to forge a connection with two Southern students, which has been very beneficial to providing in-person learning,” Solan said. Plus, he adds, “Southern students serve as both mentors and learners in this unique experience. Our students instantly think our college students are cool and put their best foot forward to impress them. Likewise, our teachers enjoy sharing their experiences and perspectives on the profession with the college students.”
Marilú Rochefort, Southern’s assistant director in the Office of Educational Services, works with NextGen students ahead of their experience to determine the best academic level to place them. She then connects the students and the school district to coordinate school placement. During the program, she provides proactive check-ins and ensures participants adjust well and gain the best experiences possible. Students are also paired with a mentor within the school building who can help them learn to navigate school protocols and culture.
“I’m incredibly happy – I’ve had the chance to work with some great teachers,” says Rickqueal Warren, ’22, a special education major at Southern and NextGen participant. He started working at Norton Elementary before switching to Highland Elementary. “I learned techniques for teaching, but I also learned how to interview for teaching jobs, what questions to ask, and what questions I might get asked. They do their best to help you grow as a person and as an up-and-coming educator.”
Both Khalid and Warren plan on participating in the program again.
“I have been able to work with so many students with unique personalities and talk to different teachers in the building who have anywhere from three years to 25 years of experience,” Khalid said. “In four weeks of working at Darcey, I feel as if I have learned so much already – and that has prepared me better for the future.”