In Florida, a bid to expand the teacher pool

A district confronts shortage by recruiting teens to train.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In Florida's Broward County, the looming challenge for its school system is perhaps best summed up in a single statistic: the need for 13,000 new teachers in the decade ahead.

It's a challenge that faces school districts across the nation, especially in big urban areas with often lean budgets. No one has found a magic solution, but here in the Fort Lauderdale area, officials are responding with an innovative notion: recruiting people as young as 14 for the job.

People like Bonnie Stacy. The high school senior won't go straight to the front of the classroom, but she has made an early commitment to become a teacher. And the district is making a commitment to help, offering her everything from mentoring to college tuition to a teaching job once she finishes school.

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The gambit won't eliminate the shortage on its own. But the experiment in America's fifth-largest school district does hint at one slice of the solution: Fill inner-city teaching ranks by recruiting in those same areas.

For example, the program has given Bonnie, once an average student with little hope of attending college, a clear career path and an incentive to excel. The Broward County Public Schools District, for its part, hopes people to find a cadre of new teachers especially committed to teaching in this region. Currently, by contrast, half of new teachers in the county's inner-city schools quit within three years.

"Universities are not producing enough teachers and the result is that we have a crisis in education," says Broward County School Board member Bob Parks, who helped pioneer the Urban Teacher Academy Project (UTAP). "What better way to confront the teacher shortage than to grow our own?"

If successful, programs like this could be imitated elsewhere as urban public schools nationwide push to fill some 700,000 teaching slots between 2000 and 2010, in an effort to meet classroom demand and improve school quality. Since the problem is a national one, driven by school demands and the high faculty turnover, other states and cities have also been focusing on teacher recruitment.

Tennessee, which projects a need for 15,000 new teachers in the next 10 years, has set aside half a million dollars to recruit high school and college students, lure teachers from other states, and lure midlife professionals to change careers.

In Texas and South Carolina, local programs have looked abroad for teachers, while Alabama schools have turned to retirees. Nevada is chasing down everyone from military people to stay-at-home moms, urging them to teach the 400,000 new students the state expects to enroll in the next four years.

The challenge looms large here in Florida, one of seven states where most students are from minority groups. According to a Sarasota Herald-Tribune analysis, teachers at poorer schools are 44 percent more likely to have failed the state's certification tests.

Bonnie Stacy and others in the UTAP program are being groomed in teaching techniques and classroom theory and paired off with teacher mentors; they hone their skills on elementary pupils. After high school, they move on to community colleges and universities for a four-year, tuition-free teaching degree with a guaranteed job at the end - possibly even back at their own stomping grounds.

In middle school, Bonnie got Cs and Ds - and financially, she says, college simply wasn't an option. Now in her final year at Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, which has a graduation rate of just 57 percent, the 18-year-old is consistently earning As and Bs.

"Joining UTAP was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. "It's given me a direction, a passion in life, something to work at, and a reason to improve myself."

UTAP is expected to yield 150 graduates a year to work in some of the county's 101 underprivileged schools.

The program's first four teachers in training graduated from Stranahan High in spring 2004 and are now studying at Broward Community College.

"The students going through this program are heroes," says UTAP coordinator Steven Peskin. "They have the ability and the willingness to transform lives by bringing something back to their schools. This is a true leadership program."

Initial funding for UTAP came from Dr. Parks, who donated cash left over from his school board election campaign to get things started. Further funding has come from the Florida Pre-Paid College Board, donations from local companies, and the Broward Education Foundation, a nonprofit run by the county. Broward Community College and three universities - Nova Southeastern, Barry, and Florida Atlantic - cosponsor the scholarships.

With their own inner-city backgrounds, UTAP trainees are considered by many to be better equipped to handle the challenges of teaching in poor urban schools: For one thing, they're immune to the 'culture shock' that is often blamed for high turnover among other new recruits.

"We want them to be quality teachers in the kind of schools they went to themselves, the harder-to-staff schools, where they can relate to the children and the children can relate to them," says UTAP coordinator Sara Rogers.

Many of participants, she adds, "are the first in their family to go to university or to even consider it, and our guarantee is that they graduate from college debt-free."

The student teachers undergo 90 minutes of training three times a week, working in a "laboratory classroom" and focusing on fundamentals such as how to make lesson plans and teach children to read. They're also trained to handle behavior problems and social difficulties.

In ninth grade, the students go on field trips to universities and community colleges, where they sit in on classes and taste campus life. "It gives us a real feel for what college will be like when we get there. It makes it less daunting," says Bonnie.

Once a month, they head to local elementary schools to teach 30-minute lessons. Stranahan High School student Vanessa Dike, 16, practices teaching at North Fork Elementary in Fort Lauderdale. Located in Broward's poorest ZIP code, it's made up largely of minorities from low-income backgrounds.

In the process, Vanessa has lost her initial skepticism about teaching.

"Now I see what an awesome profession it is," she says. "We can say to pupils, 'I know what it's like for you, I've been there myself.' We can make a difference."

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