By Steve Tuttle I
t wasn’t easy for Jones to be a college student. Working full time and raising two boys, she managed to complete two years of night classes at Pamlico Community College. That’s when her dream of becoming a teacher probably would have died if she hadn’t been recruited into the Wachovia Partnership East program run by East Carolina.
Over the next two years, Jones received guidance, counseling, financial aid and a shoulder to lean on while completing her degree work through online courses and classes taught at the community college by visiting ECU faculty. During that time she officially was an ECU student but she rarely set foot on campus.
This fall, Pamlico Elementary will realize something of a dream as well. The school gets a well-trained educator—she compiled a perfect 4.0 GPA—plus, as a native of the county with family ties there, she’s not likely to leave soon. Retaining good teachers is a frustrating problem for rural schools that can’t match the lifestyle or the salary supplements offered in urban counties.
She was one of 25 adult learners in the second graduating class this summer of the Wachovia Partnership East (WPE) program; 16 received diplomas as part of the first graduating class last December. With degrees in elementary education and special education, most already have or soon will begin teaching in rural communities across eastern North Carolina. Roughly 200 students now are enrolled in the 2-year-old program, a number projected to swell to 600 in five years. By then at least 100 new teachers are expected to be graduating from the program each year.
In many respects, it’s adult learners like Jones and her classmates who are the new face of teaching in eastern North Carolina. North Carolina can hardly wait for them. As one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, North Carolina needs to hire more than 11,000 new teachers each year. But the state’s public universities graduate only about 3,000 education majors annually. That leaves a yawning gap of more than 7,000 teachers that the state’s public schools must find somewhere else, usually by recruiting from out of state or even overseas.
Those worrisome numbers have galvanized the state’s higher education community. President Erskine Bowles has declared that graduating significantly more teachers is Job One throughout the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, and he has challenged (some would say threatened) the deans of education to think of new ways to ramp up their teacher training programs. ECU’s response to the challenge, formulated by Dean of Education Marilyn Sheerer and based on efforts she and others implemented here over the past six years, is drawing praise around the state as a blueprint for other campuses to follow.
The blueprint comes in two parts. First, it details East Carolina’s pedal-to-the-metal efforts to increase the number of traditional students receiving undergraduate teaching degrees. Through increased scholarship aid, mentoring programs and other initiatives, that number has climbed from 280 in 2001 to 370 in the 2004-05 school year.
Part two of the plan is finding people like Jones who want to become teachers but who can’t put their lives—and their livelihoods—on hold for four years by becoming university students. ECU removed that stumbling block by partnering with community colleges across eastern North Carolina to deliver the course work locally, often through night classes. In addition, East Carolina converted much of its teacher training curriculum to online courses. ECU is tops in the state in distance education, and almost half of all those online learners are taking teacher training courses.
The result is that East Carolina now produces more classroom teachers than any other UNC system campus. As importantly, ECU has not sacrificed quality in the pursuit of quantity. The College of Education gets high marks from the North Carolina State Board of Education for the quality of its education graduates. Last year, the Carnegie Corporation’s Learning Network for Teachers for a New Era project asked East Carolina to share its ideas for producing high-quality school teachers with universities across the nation.
“We are sending out hundreds of graduates to work in our public schools,” Sheerer says, “and we’re using a variety of pathways to prepare them—traditional programs, alternative licensure programs, 2+2 programs with community colleges, and online programs. This is what we’re all about; this is what will make a significant impact.”
Jones also wants to make an impact, albeit on a smaller scale. “I just can’t wait to decorate my classroom. I’ve been waiting 16 years to do that.” Thinking outside the box
Sheerer realized a few years ago that East Carolina couldn’t solve the state’s entire teacher shortage crisis so she focused the university’s efforts on its own backyard—the counties east of Interstate 95 that compose ECU’s traditional service area. It’s tough finding teachers willing to work in those small towns, where challenges are high and resources are low.
She knew that most of the college-going kids from those towns aren’t interested in teaching, mainly because of the relatively low pay. They have aspirations of getting up in the world and getting out, preferably with a degree in business or science. But Sheerer reasoned that other bright kids were graduating from those rural schools and not going on to college, usually for financial or family reasons. They were taking jobs as bank tellers, in restaurants and quite often as teacher aides, as Jones did. They were raising families and putting down roots.
Always one to think outside the box, Sheerer saw those negatives as a positive. Because they have roots in those rural communities, she believed these adults would be more likely to stay and teach in their hometowns. Having identified her targets, Sheerer set about determining what would it take to turn them into teachers.
“We found that it came down to three things that would not have to happen for them to do it,” Sheerer says, counting off on her fingers. “One, they said there was no way they could quit their jobs and go back to college. Two, they said there was no way they could leave home to take classes. And three, they said they would need a little financial help and a whole lot of support and encouragement to get through such a long-term challenge.”
Beginning in 2002, Sheerer began striking partnerships with community colleges across eastern North Carolina that solved the first two parts of that problem. Three “hub sites” were created—at Craven Community College, the Rocky Mount campus of Edgecombe Community College, and
Wayne Community College—which essentially became extensions of ECU’s College of Education. The three hubs in turn linked with 18 other community colleges, one private college, an Air Force base and 29 public school systems. A fourth hub site will open this fall at Beaufort Community College.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place in 2004 when the Wachovia Corporation stepped forward with what was the biggest corporate donation in East Carolina’s history. The majority of the $1.25 million grant goes directly to student scholarships for people like Jones. The initiative was renamed the Wachovia Partnership East.
More money to support the effort came when the College of Education secured a federal grant of $800,000 to help recruit adult learners as special education teachers. The Golden Leaf Educational Consortium provided funds to establish teacher resource centers and other local groups created scholarships specifically for WPE students.
“Marilyn has built a reputation as an out-of-the-box dean of education,” says John Dornan, president of the influential N.C. Public School Forum think tank in Raleigh. “Thanks to her reputation around the state, ECU is now at the table on a number of state task forces and commissions, and her work is establishing ECU as a leading school of education.” Addressing the money issue
Sheerer’s fingers began tingling after about the 200th handshake with College of Education majors at spring graduation, and there were more than one hundred to go in the cap-and-gown line. Still, she was ecstatic at seeing the record number of fresh faces going into teaching. “I turned several times to the provost who was sitting behind me on stage and said, ‘These are actual teachers and administrators for the classrooms of North Carolina!’”
While East Carolina is counting on nontraditional students to help ease the teacher shortage crisis, the university continues to focus the majority of its efforts on campus. It’s here that the overall effort is showing some dramatic results.
The number of traditional students earning teaching degrees and walking across stage at ECU graduations has been climbing about 30 percent each year since 2000, to 406 this year, and there’s a bulge in the undergraduate pipeline that should keep the surge continuing for years to come. Including those specializing in a field outside the classroom—as librarians or information technologists, for example—and those receiving advanced degrees as principals or administrators, ECU sent 908 educators into schools last year, up from 578 in 2000.
Those numbers are climbing despite the lukewarm appeal that teaching offers as a career. The starting state salary for a teacher fresh out of college in 2005 was $26,260 for 10 months of employment. Local school systems supplement teacher pay in amounts ranging from a few hundred dollars a year in rural counties to more than $5,000 a year in urban counties. The average local supplement is $2,865, yielding an average total salary for beginning teachers last year of $29,125.
That ranks at the bottom of incomes for other new college graduates, according to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. An accounting major could expect a starting salary of around $46,000. Computer engineers earn $56,000 right out of college. Even liberal arts majors are getting bigger paychecks.
Compounding the issue is the fact that many students interested in majoring in education often require financial aid to pay for college.
“When our recruiters go into high schools on their career days, they specifically seek out kids who might be interested in becoming teachers,” Sheerer says. “In many, many cases these students say they are interesting in teaching but their families can’t afford college tuition. We had to do something about that. We can’t let money get in the way.”
Thus, increasing financial aid for education majors became a priority and has shown notable results. The number of ECU students receiving N.C. Teaching Fellows grants, a state-supported program that provides $6,500 yearly scholarships to students who agree to teach for at least four years after graduation, rose steadily.
The state selects 500 Teaching Fellows each year; 60 Teaching Fellow recipients enrolled in ECU last year. In May, the College of Education announced the creation of the Maynard Scholarship program, funded by a major grant from James ’65 and Connie ’65 Maynard of Raleigh. Modeled after the Teaching Fellows program, the Maynard Scholarship will award $20,000 to ten outstanding students yearly. Maynard scholars will be expected to teach for four years in eastern North Carolina.
Sheerer has focused much attention on the ECU Educators Hall of Fame. Begun in 1999 as a vehicle for honoring those who have made an impact on society through teaching, the Hall of Fame has emerged as a major source of financial aid. Individuals whose lives have been enriched by a professor or teacher can recognize that person through a minimum gift of $1,000, which secures a plaque for that person in a permanent exhibit in the Speight Building.
The goal is to create an endowment fund of $1 million. Interest from that endowment will fund merit-based scholarships for College of Education students. In addition, the College of Education offers financial aid through nearly 50 other scholarship and endowment funds.
Helping beyond graduation
While East Carolina has succeeded in implementing programs that are increasing the number of graduates going into teaching, Sheerer worries that more needs to be done. A major concern is the high number of teachers who leave the classroom for other jobs after just a few years.
The most recent statistics indicate that more than 12 percent of all teachers statewide quit their jobs each year. The turnover rate is higher in most eastern North Carolina counties. It was more than 23 percent in Pasquotank County last school year, for example, and nearly 16 percent in Bertie County. Pitt County’s turnover rate was below the state average at 10.5 percent.
“We in higher education need to stretch ourselves even more to try to keep these graduates in our public schools,” Sheerer says. “Retention is just as big a problem as recruitment. ECU has a commitment to serve eastern North Carolina in particular. That includes the challenged school districts that employ some of our graduates. We must try to insure that our graduates succeed once they become part of these systems.”
In surveys, teachers often said they left the classroom because they felt overwhelmed by the workload and had no one to turn to for day-to-day advice and support. Those problems are particularly acute in rural schools.
ECU has launched several programs aimed at addressing those problems. One is the Rural Education Institute (REI), which provides ongoing support for teachers in low-wealth schools in 16 eastern counties. Perquimans County recently obtained a $34,000 REI grant, funded by the Karen and Christopher Payne Family Foundation, to hire a retired teacher to mentor a group of new teachers. The mentor helped them with classroom management, teaching strategies and lesson plans. As a result, 18 of the 19 teachers helped by the mentor stayed to teach another year in the county.
Also helping with teacher retention is the Golden Leaf Foundation, which gave ECU a $250,000 grant in 2004 to help school systems in eight rural eastern North Carolina counties develop a research-based Model of Teacher Recruitment and Retention.
East Carolina also is finding ways to use technology to support teachers after they begin their careers. “There is so much potential,” says John Swope, associate dean for administration, finance and technology at the College of Education, who is helping bring new technology into teacher training. “Technology really has the potential to save time, to create more real experiences for folks and to expose them to things they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.”
The new tools include video conferences, which allow teachers to visit classrooms without having to travel to them. Students from rural eastern North Carolina could take part in a real-time broadcast of a classroom in, say, Charlotte. “Imagine the possibilities,“ Swope says. “You can begin to better understand cultural issues of rural versus urban.”
What happens next?
UNC System President Erskine Bowles has directed the 15 campuses that have schools of education, including East Carolina, to focus on graduating more teachers and to develop plans for accomplishing that goal. The programs described in this article comprise much of ECU’s response to that directive.
Bowles now is reviewing the plans developed by each campus with an eye toward identifying individual initiatives that are working well and which could be replicated at other campuses.
Bowles is to give a report to the North Carolina General Assembly no later than Dec. 30 on what each campus is doing and which programs he believes should receive additional state funding.
By the end of next March, the General Assembly wants a status report on progress made at each campus, with specific numbers on enrollment growth in education programs.