May 26, 2015
By Reema Khrais / WUNC
This month, thousands of college students are walking across graduation stages and receiving their diplomas. Among them is a small group of 500 students across several campuses called North Carolina Teaching Fellows.
They’re the last of their kind to graduate – the state began dismantling the scholarship program in 2011. While the program has a 30-year-old legacy of recruiting teachers, filling classrooms remains to be a challenge that plagues the state today.
For years, 21-year-old Camirra Williamson had a plan: get into the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, study hard and eventually become a doctor. She accomplished two out of three. In high school, she realized medicine just wasn’t for her.
“And so, honestly, I didn’t know what to do,” she says.
She had helped her mom, who’s an elementary school teacher, with tutoring in the past. Her mom told her she had a natural knack for teaching.
Williamson eventually applied for the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program and was awarded $26,000 to study at N.C. State University. In return, she had to promise to teach in North Carolina for at least four years.
As an undergraduate, she got hands-on experience, including trying to excite seventh-graders on topics like genetics and wind speed.
“Science is in everything that we have, science is in your clothes, it’s in your food,” she enthusiastically says. “Science is in the way you blink.”
Williamson, who graduated from college this month, is in the last Fellows class. The state is no longer paying for the scholarship program.
“It has left a big hole in our teacher pipeline,” says Keith Poston, executive director and president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which administered the program.
Poston says N.C. Teaching Fellows recruited top students and helped transform the profession. It’s prepared more than 8,000 teachers since 1986.
“It wasn’t just a scholarship, it wasn’t just, ‘Here’s a check,’” he says. “Right from the very start, their freshmen year, they were put into classrooms.”
Students received training in classrooms and community youth programs. They connected with mentors, had opportunities to travel abroad and strengthened their leadership skills through different activities.
From his desk, Poston pulls out a coffee-stained report entitled “Who Will Teach Our Children”. The document outlines the teacher shortage back in the late 1980s, which cites teacher retirements, a projected rise in student enrollment and a decline in the number of college graduates certified to teach.
Poston says just take out the picture of people in bell-bottoms, and it would still hold true today.
“We have the potential of a real crisis on our hands coming up and the teaching fellows program was just one piece of helping solve the puzzle of how we’re going to fill our classrooms,” Poston says.
Fewer People Seek Teaching Profession
Across the nation, fewer people want to be teachers. In the last few years, teaching programs in North Carolina have seen at least a 20 percent drop in enrollment.
“And, now, because of the environment we’ve created in North Carolina, we can’t attract from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan,” says Greg Little, former Teaching Fellow and the superintendent of Mt. Airy City Schools.
Drops in enrollment at teaching training programs can be attributed to several reasons. Despite recent boosts, teacher pay in North Carolina is still among the lowest in the country. The teaching profession has also seen a lot of changes in the last few years with the introduction of Common Core, budget slashes and erosion of tenure, or career status, protections.
Little says his district, like many others, struggles with filling certain positions, like those in math and science.
“It’s not like we’ve put a job out on a website, and we have 10 or 15 applications,” he says.
Other Solutions to Shortage
One of the weaknesses of the Teaching Fellows programs is that it didn’t require students to pursue hard-to-staff fields or to work in struggling schools. That’s why House lawmakers are pushing new teacher scholarship programs that would do just that. One bill would create a similar program that would recruit high school and college students, as well as mid-career professionals.
“There are other ways we can get highly-qualified folks in the classroom, and I think teaching fellows was not performing as well as it should have,” says Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, who helped cut the program in 2011.
Berger is a big fan of Teach For America. He likes that TFA recruits students while they’re in college, not high school.
“It’s been a good program for us, I’d like to see us expand it even more,” says Berger. In 2013, he and other Republican lawmakers allocated $6 million in recurring funds.
Even though fewer people are applying for TFA, that hasn’t stopped the organization’s growth in North Carolina, according to Robyn Fehrman, director of the eastern North Carolina chapter.
“We’re working in some of the hardest-to-staff classrooms across the state,” she says. “One of our successes has been delivering really high excellent teachers to kids who need them most.”
In the last couple of years, TFA in North Carolina established another office in the eastern piedmont region and expanded its presence in southeastern North Carolina. The organization has also been working to recruit more teachers who are residents of North Carolina and encouraging them to stay beyond two years.
Some of the biggest critiques of the program are that the teachers don’t receive enough training and leave the classroom soon after their two-year promise.
For Camirra Williamson, a teaching fellow, sticking around is important. She plans on spending on the next year teaching in Ghana, where she studied abroad, before returning home to teach in Wake County or in her hometown, Oxford.
“I feel an obligation to the communities of North Carolina,” she says. “I feel an obligation to that because they have poured a lot into us.”
And if her program’s track record is any indication, she’ll likely stay in the classroom beyond her four-year promise. According to a UNC study, Teaching fellows stay longer than other North Carolina teachers.