Education

Many rural NC counties don’t have enough teachers. Can pay bonuses help change that?

N.C. State junior Celeste Castillo, seen here studying on Oct. 4, 2017, inside the university’s Poe Hall, is a member of the first class of future educators to be considered for TIP Teaching Scholars Award Program. The award will pay 10 students up to $10,000 in exchange for a commitment to teach in rural North Carolina school districts for at least two years after graduation.
N.C. State junior Celeste Castillo, seen here studying on Oct. 4, 2017, inside the university’s Poe Hall, is a member of the first class of future educators to be considered for TIP Teaching Scholars Award Program. The award will pay 10 students up to $10,000 in exchange for a commitment to teach in rural North Carolina school districts for at least two years after graduation.

A new program is offering education majors at N.C. State University a big bonus if they commit after graduation to working in some rural school districts that struggle to attract enough teachers.

The TIP Teaching Scholars Award Program will give teachers a total of $10,000 over two years, along with extra coaching from the school and the university. Ten students who graduate from N.C. State in 2019 will be placed in one of five counties – Cabarrus, Johnston, Lenoir, Onslow and Wayne.

The effort is a partnership among the school districts, the N.C. State College of Education and The Innovation Project, a nonprofit led by the superintendents of 24 N.C. school districts. Eventually, the goal is to expand the program to other rural counties.

“We hope that having the financial award will be enough to pique their interest, and then we hope that they will see that these really are great places,” Ann McColl, CEO of The Innovation Project, said of teachers. “We think we can help build a community around them that can support them. Then they can see themselves as a part of something bigger.”

Program leaders hope the initiative will help ease a teacher shortage in rural North Carolina school districts. The Johnston County system in the Triangle is short 18 teachers this year, and 32 percent of new hires last year were from out of state. Cabarrus County near Charlotte needs 13 more teachers, and Onslow County in the eastern part of the state needs 28.

Some have pointed to low pay as a driving force behind the teacher shortage, but there might be additional factors, said Mary Ann Danowitz, dean of the College of Education at N.C. State. New teachers often aren’t familiar with the less-populated school districts, she said, and the idea of working in a new environment can be daunting.

All five school districts taking part in the new program have pockets of struggling schools where teaching can be extra difficult. At least one school in each district received a D or F score on the state’s 2016-17 School Performance Grade evaluation. In some Johnston County schools, as many as 97.3 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Many students speak English as a second language or have parents who are non-native speakers.

“There are certain barriers, but there is also a critical need,” Danowitz said. “So the question became, what can we do fast to get qualified teachers into the areas with the strongest needs?”

Juniors at N.C. State who are chosen for the program will get their feet wet with a summer job at one of the school districts in 2018, then head back to the university in the fall with a better idea of what it will take to succeed at their future school.

After graduation, the new teachers will be paired with more-experienced mentors and have access to district-level coaches, support from the faculty at N.C. State and continuing education opportunities through The Innovation Project.

“These would be novice teachers, but they will have more preparation and more support than any other new teacher I’m aware of,” Danowitz said. “This will develop a small but tight-knit network of support and create a welcoming into a community that is very, very rare for a new teacher coming in.”

The five school districts will pay for the “post-graduate scholarships” out of their own budgets. The $10,000 price tag was too high for some districts that would have otherwise been interested, Danowitz said, but she hopes The Innovation Project can find financial support for struggling districts later on if the pilot succeeds.

For Johnston County, coming up with $10,000 each for two teachers will be tough, but the benefits of the program were too good to pass up, said Brian Vetrano, chief of human capital for the school system. Johnston plans to seek grant money and donations to help offset the cost.

“We are looking at anything that will put quality teachers in our classrooms,” Vetrano said. “We are willing to take some risks and do some innovative things to see change.”

A first-year teacher in Johnston County earns a state salary of $35,000, plus a local supplement of $3,675.

The biggest challenge of the program might be getting college students to consider rural areas at all. Celeste Castillo, a junior at the College of Education at N.C. State, said the downside would be living in a small community, but the draw would be the extra support.

“It’s not about the money, and the problems are the incentive to go and make a difference,” Castillo said. “I just never really saw myself in a rural area, but if I had the support system there, especially for the beginning, that would be cool.”

Autumn Linford writes about Johnston County for The News & Observer. Email her at autumnlinford@gmail.com.

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