According to the Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi is facing a major teaching shortage – in fact, almost one out of every three school districts in the state is designated as a critical teacher shortage area.
To help with that issue, William Carey University has partnered with several regional kindergarten through 12th -grade institutions for an agreement that will enable school students to fast-track their future through a combination of dual enrollment classes, an accelerated schedule and tuition waivers. Through the program, students can graduate from William Carey with a bachelor’s degree in three years.
“This is to try to help fill the gap,” WCU president Tommy King said. “Most school districts, all except a few, have vacancies that they were unable to fill. So we’re trying to help plug those holes as much as we can.”
Because the curriculum includes employment as teacher assistants, those students will also be able to enter the state retirement system and qualify for state benefits during their second year at the university.
“We’ve had a teacher assistant scholarship program in place for about four or five years already, said Ben Burnett, who serves as executive vice president and dean of the School of Education at WCU. “So anybody out in a public school in Mississippi, or a school in Mississippi serving as an assistant teacher, qualifies for a 50% reduction in tuition for their third or fourth years.
“That’s propelled us to have over 160 assistant teachers in our program right now, and we think this program will even help that number grow. Our assistant teachers, in so many cases, are doing the work that a regular certified teacher is doing, so they just need to get their certification so they can go to the next level and fill in the opening.”
The program has five steps, starting with high school, during which time participating kindergarten through 12th -grade school districts choose students to participate in the “Grow Your Own” program. WCU counselors advise students on their schedules, and students graduate from their high school with 12 hours of dual enrollment credits from WCU.
"We feel like by identifying students at an early age, in 11th or 12th grade, working with them on their dual credit classes, wherever they're taking dual credit, it will be great," Burnett said. It doesn't have to be at William Carey.
"We make sure that they have the right 12 to 15 hours once they graduate from high school, and then we can accelerate their program where they'll be in the workforce potentially by age 19 as an assistant teacher, and then a certified teacher in three years, graduating from high school."
During Year One at William Carey, students begin university courses in the summer after they graduate from high school. They then take fall, winter and spring classes at William Cary before finishing Year One with summer classes. During this year, K-12 school districts will coordinate placements for their chosen students as K-3 teacher assistants in district schools.
Throughout Year 2 at WCU, students take classes at the university in the fall, winter, spring and summer semesters. They also work as teacher assistants at a school in their K-12 district.
Employment as teacher assistants has two benefits: students enter the state requirement system, and they qualify for 50 percent tuition waivers from WCU.
In Year 3 at WCU, students take classes in the fall, winter and spring trimesters.They also continue working as teacher assistants at a school in their K-12 district.
"It's tremendous; that two years of being in the system of being an assistant gives them practical classroom experience," Burnett said. "In essence, it's doing a two-year residency in the schools before they finish.
"But from a parent's perspective, I can tell you that to have your child go through one year of college and get a good scholarship, and potentially be employed with full benefits at 19 years old, is just a game changer for our parents," Burnett said."It helps encourage our students to become students, because nationally, this past year - for the first time in our nation's history - more parents who have been surveyed do not recommend for our children to become teachers than (those parents) who do.
"We need the parents on board to know that this is a good profession. You hear a lot about teacher pay, but the starting salary for a teacher in the state of Mississippi is better than most other starting salaries. So we just need to turn the tide on that perception."
After graduation at the end of the three-year curriculum, students will have earned 131 credit hours and will graduate with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. Participating school districts have agreed to give hiring preference for teaching positions - when possible - to graduates of the "Grow Your Own" program.
"First of all, this will motivate some high school students to enter the field of education, and it will provide support for their early years," King said. "They can prepare to be a teacher much sooner, and that's very important.
"They will be able to get their core curriculum off in a year, and then enter professional education. Education now has a pretty reputation, and most young people think long and hard before entering education. So anything that we can offer to entice them goes a long way toward filling that gap."