Fueling Future Teachers: City Colleges Addresses Teacher Shortage Through Multiple Programs for Educators


Across the nation and right here in Chicagoland, schools are focused on staffing their classrooms before children go back to school in the coming days and weeks.

But as school districts all over experience teacher shortages, Sandy De León, the Executive Director of the Chicago Early Learning Workforce Scholarship (CELWS) based at Harry S Truman College, has hope for the future of education. During this challenging time for the industry, De León leads an initiative aimed at teacher recruitment and retention.

Sandy De León
Sandy De León

“Our society needs education programs to be open and accessible, and we’re playing an important role in making sure that happens through our support of teachers,” De León said. “This fall, we’re bringing on board a new class of 115 CELWS scholars at City Colleges who are current and future early childhood professionals, including teachers, specialists, and administrators. I know they will make a positive impact on the lives of young children and their families.”

This year’s City Colleges CELWS scholars join the more than 160 educators who have already earned a degree or certificate with us through the program. An additional 213 scholars are currently working toward a teaching degree or pathway at City Colleges with CELWS support. Last school year alone, 32 CELWS scholars who earned an associate degree from City Colleges were awarded additional CELWS funding to support their transfer to National Louis University or Roosevelt University for their bachelor’s degree.

Since 2018, the CELWS program has offered a unique opportunity to Chicagoans interested in obtaining a teaching credential, degree, endorsement, or licensure to work with young children in Chicago Early Learning programs. The last-dollar scholarship is the result of a collaboration between City Colleges of Chicago, the Mayor’s Office of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services, and is intended to provide educational opportunity to two groups:

  • Current Chicago Early Learning program staff who want to advance their career as early childhood professionals, and
  • Chicago residents interested in entering the early childhood workforce.

Scholarship recipients are matched at one of the four CELWS higher education partner institutions based on their educational background and career pathway goals: City Colleges of Chicago supports students pursuing an associate degree, certificate, endorsement, or credential in an early childhood-related field, National Louis University and Roosevelt University offer bachelor’s degree programs, and the University of Illinois at Chicago offers an alternative teaching licensure to participants who already have a bachelor’s degree.

De León recently shared details about CELWS’ commitment to equity and inclusion practices in its teacher qualification programs at the 2022 U.S. Department of Education’s Effective Educator Development Annual Summit in Arlington, Virginia. Her biggest takeaway?

“Here at City Colleges, we are doing innovative work. We were presenting from a national platform and saw people’s reactions, and they were incredulous,” De León said. “It made me stop and reflect on our success,” she said.

“Not every city is able to support or implement a program like ours to address teacher workforce needs. It felt amazing to share how our partnership brings together a host of city agencies and higher education institutions and that we transfer our City Colleges graduates to four-year institutions with 100% tuition coverage,” she continued.

CELWS is just one of the many available programs at City Colleges that aim to address teacher workforce development and help City Colleges students enter the field of education. Our colleges engage future teachers at different grade levels through a variety of other programs:

  • Current and future City Colleges students may be eligible to apply for the statewide Early Childhood Access for Consortium for Equity (ECACE) Scholarship Program, which provides funds for those who are currently working or have worked in the early childhood education field and are seeking additional credentials and degrees. The program covers the total cost of attendance.
  • City Colleges of Chicago is also helping aspiring teachers reach their goals through our Supporting Emerging Educator Development (SEED) Scholarship, which is designed to support recent Chicago Public Schools graduates who are interested in becoming future CPS teachers. The award provides up to $3,000 per year toward an associate degree in education.
  • Two additional programs at City Colleges offer our students tuition-free options to prepare for a career in early childhood education:
    • Students may be eligible to earn a Basic Certificate in Child Development/Preschool Education at no cost through our Future Ready initiative, which is designed to offer short-term credentials in high-demand fields like education.
    • Students in City Colleges’ Adult Education programs who are learning English or preparing for their high school diploma may be eligible to apply for the Career Bridge program in Early Childhood Education, earning an Illinois Gateways Level 2 credential which prepares them for work in a child care center.

Through a variety of teacher recruitment and retention programs, City Colleges of Chicago is doing its part to prepare a diverse workforce of future teachers to lead the next generation of Chicagoans toward successful and equitable outcomes. For her part, De León knows that the future depends on strong education systems.

“The backbone of all other fields is education. Teachers make a real difference, and we have to invest in them,” she said.

Sandy De León is the executive director of the Chicago Early Learning Workforce Scholarship, a collaborative initiative between City Colleges of Chicago, the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services designed to support the growth of the early childhood workforce and to increase accessibility to career pathways in this area. The initiative also works together with the University of Illinois at Chicago, National Louis University, and Roosevelt University to provide specialized early learning and advising expertise at the bachelor’s degree and licensure levels.

De León has over 15 years of experience working in the non-profit sector and in local, city, and state level committees focused on expanding, enhancing, and reforming comprehensive early childhood programs, services, and systems and developing and implementing advocacy agendas. She led Erie Neighborhood House’s “Proyecto Cuídate” program and staff to national recognition as recipients of the Family Strengthening award by UnidosUS. De León was also part of Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot Education Transition team in 2019 and was a fellow in the Build Initiative’s Equity Leaders Action Network (ELAN) during her time in systems advocacy and policy at Start Early, where she and other national leaders worked to identify, address, and take action on issues of inequity based on race, ethnicity, language, and culture in early childhood state systems.