LaShonda Brown’s high school record was far from stellar: She fell through the cracks in her urban Chicago school, became a teenage mother, and dropped out. Yet even after she bounced back—earning her GED and landing jobs in both advertising and teen counseling—Brown wasn’t satisfied. She longed to work in local schools. “I wanted to share the life experience I had,” she says. This fall, Brown is one of approximately 400 Illinois residents entering a program to earn a college degree and teaching credential in four to five years.
Brown and others like her could be the answer to a perennial crisis. Amid high teacher turnover, many low-income school districts struggle to secure qualified, dedicated teachers. That’s where “grow your own teacher” programs come in. By tapping into the talent rooted in close-knit neighborhoods, such plans can help communities help themselves. Here’s a sampling of programs sprouting up across the country.
Grow Your Own Illinois began in 2000 as a pilot project to help parents become teachers. In 2006, the state committed $3 million toward the goal of adding 1,000 nontraditional teachers to low-income schools by 2016. The first group will graduate this year. “The most recurring phrase we hear is, ‘This is a dream come true,’” says GYO Illinois director Anne Hallett. “These are people who are very smart and love working in neighborhood schools, but have never had the money to go to college. This is educational, economic development, and community building all in one.”
In Broward County, Florida, the six-year-old Urban Academies program targets students, starting in 9th grade, who show potential as future teachers. They receive full college scholarships and intensive academic mentoring. The program has already placed 360 teachers in underserved schools, and 91 percent of them have remained in their positions for more than three years. The Urban Academies received a $100,000 Innovations in American Government Award in July 2006, and will use the money to replicate its program in other districts.
The Seattle-area Highline School District paired up with Pacific Lutheran University to draw teachers from the local immigrant population. Highline students represent 81 nations, according to PLU, and many of their parents work in the district in nonprofessional roles. “We ... found that they had come from Ethiopia or Vietnam and had full university degrees, but no way to use them here,” says Michael Hillis, co-acting dean of PLU’s education school. “They’ve got rich experiences and would be wonderful teachers.” The first four candidates will graduate late this year.
The Aurora, Colorado, public school district’s Grow Your Own program focuses on paraprofessionals already working in the schools. Candidates who meet specific criteria—gender, race, lingual abilities, or willingness to teach underserved subjects—receive grants to attend college and train with a mentor during the certification process. Six teachers have graduated since the program’s inception in 1998; 22 more are in the pipeline. There’s no obligation to work in the Aurora school system, but “people tend to stay,” says program director Sheri Charles.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher