Home Grown Teachers

Last Updated: December 03, 2008

This appeared in the December 2008 Rural Policy Matters.

An extensive locally developed and locally funded grow-your-own-teacher program is underway in North Carolina's Bertie County, the state's poorest school system in terms of local funding.

This isolated rural school district in the state's northeast corner serves some 3,300 students, with a free and reduced lunch rate of 89%. Like most high-poverty schools, it has struggled with academic performance and staffing. According to Superintendent Chip Zullinger, "One of our biggest dysfunctions is keeping qualified teachers. Two of every five school days kids have a substitute."

In this regard, Bertie County's teacher struggles might be somewhat more severe than other districts, but they mirror those faced by thousands of low-wealth rural schools across the country.

Zullinger explains, "Many of the teachers who have taken jobs in the county only keep them until they are offered a job somewhere else. Sometimes they take another job a few weeks into the school year. When there's a vacancy in a critical subject area, it can take months to fill — those classes stayed open an average of 90 days this year."

In addition to vacancies, teachers are out on the usual sick and extended leaves and for another increasingly common reason: teacher training. As state and federal accountability pressures mount, teachers who work in high-poverty or "low-performing" schools across the country are required to attend a variety of workshops aimed at getting student scores up.

"North Carolina requires teachers to spend enormous amounts of time away," says Zullinger. "There's a huge problem in how we treat teachers."

He continues, "A rural setting exacerbates these challenges. You have to value the quality of life offered in a rural community. If you're looking for an urban lifestyle, you won't be happy in Bertie County."

All these challenges led Zullinger to think about other ways to get good teachers into the school system and keep them there.

The Teacher Cadet Program

Last spring, Zullinger approached the school board with an idea to build up the district's teaching force by supporting recent Bertie graduates to become teachers in critical subjects. The program would cover college tuition and books and it would hire the participants as full-time employees of the school system, pay them a professional salary, and pair them to work with the district's strongest teachers throughout their four years in college. In exchange, the participants would agree to teach a critical subject for five years in Bertie County. The Board agreed and began looking for ways to use local funding to support the idea and for an institutional partner, which they found in Shaw University.

The program selects students during their senior year through an application and interview process. Students must have a strong academic record, demonstrate a desire to remain in Bertie County, and commit to becoming a teacher in math, science, or English. "These are great kids," says Zullinger. "They want to be here and they are passionate about making this a better place."

The program aims to hire 20 "teacher cadets" each year; eight students are participating this fall. Shaw University is creating a campus at one of the county's closed schools where participants take classes after the regular school day.

During the day, the cadets work directly with the district's strongest teachers in math, science, and English. "The teachers have high pass rates on the state's end-of-course exams and are successful at understanding and motivating their students," says Zullinger. So far this year, the cadets do things like assist teachers with grading and paper work and tutor students who need extra help. Zullinger says the teachers appreciate the support.

For this work the students receive a salary of $25,000, full benefits, and participate in the retirement system. "Good jobs with benefits are almost unattainable in this area," Zullinger explains. These students will have a continuous growing income and their presence will help build the community and the local economy.

The partnership with Shaw University grew from contacts through school board members. Shaw had historical connections to the area and research interests that needed rural linkages. Many local residents graduated from Shaw and the college presence is viewed as positive in the community.

"Shaw has come in with incredible commitment," says Zullinger. "They want to become a very involved partner in creating better opportunities for people in this region. Where some colleges look at Bertie County and see problems, Shaw sees opportunities. This is a deep partnership, not just a teacher preparation program."

Local Investment

The approximate cost of each cohort of 20 students is $670,000, all funded from local tax revenues. In order to find the money, the district re-visited their funding priorities. They left some positions open as staff retired and looked for ways to combine functions, reduce costs, and free up local dollars. "We pitched this in economic development terms," says Zullinger. "If this is a top strategy, then it has to be resourced." Unlike the endless use of school funding to recruit teachers who are not likely to stay, "we're keeping county money in the county and investing in our own young people."

There are other payoffs as well. "So many times kids don't see a future out the other end of high school," says Zullinger. "This is having an impact on our younger high school students."

The teacher cadet program is just one way the district is using its resources to build on its rural strengths.

"The future will come back around to rural ways," says Zullinger. "There's been a stripping out of rural communities' capacity by so many forces. This is bringing capacity back."

Read more from the December 2008 Rural Policy Matters.