Wake school official excited to see comeback for Teaching Fellows program
College tuition could come free of charge for students headed for careers teaching science, math or special education in North Carolina classrooms.
State lawmakers are headed toward reviving – in more limited form – the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program that offered forgivable loans to education students until 2015.
It’s a program that helped educators like Shanta Lightfoot. Coming to N.C. State University in Raleigh from her home in Elizabeth City, Lightfoot said she had some initial fear of how big the university was. Teaching Fellows provided support and connections. As part of the program, she took trips to schools around the state, preparing her for her first job, at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh.
“When I got in the classroom, I wasn’t afraid about what I could do,” Lightfoot said. “That first-year fear wasn’t there ... I was naturally comfortable with my students and I think that showed in my teaching.”
The 2008 N.C. State graduate received about $26,000 in scholarships as a teaching fellow.
A state budget compromise plan announced Monday in the General Assembly provides several million dollars for a new version of the program. If lawmakers approve a bill creating the program, it would loan as much as $8,250 per year to each of 160 students who commit to being teachers in special education or in science, technology, engineering and math classes. The loans would pay for two to four years of college as students pursue a degree or teacher’s license from one of five designated public or private universities.
The state would forgive a year of the loan for every two years the recipient teaches in North Carolina – or one year of forgivable loans for a single year at a school the state recognizes as “low performing.”
The original program was created in 1986 and funded by the General Assembly to address a teacher shortage. It awarded loans each year to pay four years of tuition for 500 students who agreed to pay back the loan by teaching in the state for four years. During the program’s existence it graduated more than 8,500 students and took students from all 100 North Carolina counties.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the teachers’ association, said many teaching fellows returned to rural areas where they were from. Many of the students, he said, stayed in the state to teach and would move into administrative positions.
“They became highly regarded teachers,” said Jewell. “(The program) strengthened them and it worked.”
The 2011 General Assembly, newly controlled by Republicans, made more than $500 million in cuts to education programs while facing a budget shortfall. One program eliminated was Teaching Fellows.
“We frankly did not have the money, and the economy was in a dump,” said Craig Horn, a Republican from Weddington. “All the education choices were bad.”
A House bill was proposed in 2013 to revive the program, but it did not pass. The final graduating class for recipients was 2015.
“The program spoke for itself,” Jewell said. “No one understood why the General Assembly would get rid of it.”
Lightfoot, now senior administrator for middle school English language arts for Wake County Schools, said she was shocked when she heard Teaching Fellows would be cut, especially since she said the state was dealing with a teacher shortage. She knew the caliber of students the program produced.
“It was disheartening to hear North Carolina would not support that kind of a program,” she said.
Mary Ann Danowitz, dean of the N.C. State College of Education, said the state’s 15 public universities have seen a 30 percent decline in education students in recent years. That shows up in the classroom: In this school year alone, there were 400 vacancies in school districts across Central North Carolina.
“Central North Carolina is the easiest place to fill teaching positions because people like the Triangle area,” Danowitz said. “Many of those unfilled teaching vacancies were in the highest-need areas of STEM and special education.”
Horn said the state can afford the program now that the recovering economy has improved state revenue.
Horn, author of House Bill 339, has worked with Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican who authored the Senate’s version of the bill. Horn said they wanted to keep a “limited range” – specifically addressing needs in STEM and special education – for the revived program.
If the bills become law, recipients of the scholarship would be allowed to complete the program at one of the five public or private universities selected by an appointed committee by Nov. 15.
Horn said lawmakers proposed restricting the program to five universities to make sure the teachers are trained by the programs that are best equipped to produce teachers. Once the program accumulates data, lawmakers could expand it, he said.
“Competition is good,” Horn said. “If that means you want to be involved, then you need to kick up your act.”
Danowitz said she hopes N.C. State is selected for the program because the university is “STEM all the way through.” Over time she would like to see the program expanded to reach more students.
“The legislature, and state, view education as important. This hasn’t been heard in North Carolina for a while,” Danowitz said. “(Teaching Fellows) will send a very good message.”