West Virginia needs more teachers. The state is laying the groundwork early.
The Mountain State is in its second year of implementing a grow-your-own program designed to get more high school students on the path toward becoming a teacher. And although it will take a few more years to see results in the teacher pipeline, the state is seeing a lot of interest from teenagers.
This year, 347 high schoolers are enrolled in the program—up from 243 last year. Participants hail from 33 of the state’s 55 counties.
David Donaldson, the founder and managing partner of the National Center for Grow Your Own, said West Virginia’s model is growing “at a scale not seen in any other state, from a high school perspective.” Many states aren’t looking to high schoolers and are instead focusing their efforts on training paraprofessionals or other adults to be teachers, since that results in staffed classrooms more quickly.
Districts across the country have grow-your-own programs for high school students, but it’s rare to see “a statewide coherent approach,” Donaldson said.
While starting recruitment efforts in high school means playing the long game, advocates say it’s a smart strategy for bolstering the teacher pipeline. Such a program eases financial barriers for prospective teachers and gives them a realistic view of and on-ramp to the profession. Ultimately, the hope is that homegrown teachers who have been preparing to teach since they were K-12 students themselves will stay in classrooms longer.
How West Virginia’s program works
Participating high school students in West Virginia take at least 24 hours of dual-enrollment or Advanced Placement credits, at no cost to them, including four introductory education courses. They also complete at least 115 hours of field experience in classrooms while in high school.
By the time they enter college, they’ll be considered sophomores and can immediately enter an education program. They’ll spend their third year in college earning a salary as the teacher of record, meaning they’ll be in charge of their own classroom under close supervision by university and district mentors. (They can simultaneously take any remaining classes they need to graduate that year, too.)
“The teeth of the grow-your-own academic pathway—the meat of that—is that we’re able to say to a high school student, ‘We’re going to lift one year of your college [responsibility],’” said Carla Warren, the officer for the division of academic support and educator development for the West Virginia Department of Education.
Considering rising national tuition costs, it’s an attractive pitch. The department is targeting rural students who might be the first in their families to go to college and who come from low-income households.
“The students are very excited about it,” said Christine Miller, the superintendent of the Upshur County schools, which has nine students enrolled in the program. Eighteen participants in the county graduated from high school last year.
“It’s giving them an opportunity to take a look into what goes into becoming a teacher,” she continued. “They get to see the ins and outs of things students don’t normally see—the planning, the meetings that we ask teachers to participate in. They get to understand more about [student] behaviors and the things they have to keep in consideration.”
Miller said it’s a great opportunity for students to determine whether teaching is for them while they’re still in high school. But her largest hope is that they will want to pursue teaching and return to Upshur County—which, like most counties in the state, is struggling to hire enough teachers. (The state education department, in fact, recommends that counties require students to commit to teaching in their hometowns for three to five years after graduation.)
“I’ve been in education 40 years,” she said. “Never in my career did I ever think you’d be begging or looking for elementary educators. But we are—we are at that point.”
More funding could make the program even more robust
West Virginia registered its grow-your-own model with the U.S. Department of Labor last year, which opened up additional streams of funding, including federal dollars, to help support the students who are training on the job.
The state education department is using federal funding and philanthropic donations to support the grow-your-own program. This year, the state legislature passed a bill that establishes a pilot program to cover the costs of the dual-enrollment courses for the next four years.
There’s also a second phase of this work associated with being a federally registered teacher apprenticeship program. Counties can pay students—known as apprentices—an hourly wage once they begin working in classrooms. Youth apprentices earn $11 an hour in their junior year of high school, and $12 an hour their senior year. (West Virginia’s minimum wage is $8.75 an hour.)
But most students in the state’s grow-your-own pathway are not apprentices and are not earning that wage. Counties can choose whether they want to participate in the paid apprenticeship model on top of the grow-your-own program—but uptake has been slow, in part because the state doesn’t currently foot those costs. The financial burden of paying the apprentices rests on the counties.
So far, only one college student and three high school students in the state are registered apprentices. Four more high schoolers have been hired as apprentices and will start this month, bringing the state’s total to eight apprentices in three counties. Four additional counties plan to hire apprentices this school year.
Warren said her “vision and goal” is for all of the students in the grow-your-own program to be registered apprentices, as that would further make teaching a more viable and attractive career choice.
And it’s a worthwhile financial commitment for counties to pick up, she said: “You are investing in the future of your school system. It’s a high return on investment and a workforce development opportunity for their county.”
Warren is working on educating superintendents on the benefits of a registered apprenticeship, but acknowledges that it is a difficult sell without state funding.
“We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” she said. “We know the resources aren’t at the level we want them to be.”
Another challenge has been high levels of leadership turnover in the state. West Virginia has had four state superintendents in five years, and this year, nearly half of the state’s superintendents were new to their districts, Warren said.
“There’s always onboarding, reeducating, establishing strong relationships and partnerships, and educating others about the work and getting their buy-in,” she said. “It’s a constant challenge. We just try to keep our eye on the prize—that we are trying to remove barriers and increase supports” for future teachers.
When are young trainees ready to take over a classroom?
National advocates, along with a set of nonbinding guidelines approved by the Department of Labor, have said that apprentices should not be the teacher of record before completing their training, but West Virginia designed its program so apprentices will have their own classroom in their third year of college, when they’re considered seniors.
“It’s not our first choice,” Warren said. “Our first choice would be a traditional four-year program, but we know that’s not meeting the needs in our state or our counties. ... While we are concerned about that senior year being the teacher of record, it’s the county’s responsibility and the state’s responsibility to make sure there are supports in place.”
Participating counties have agreed to hire a full-time staff member who is solely in charge of supervising those teachers-in-training. And the candidates will also have support from their university mentors, as well as mentor teachers in their district.
Warren noted that by the time these candidates are the teacher of record, they will have years of classroom experience. “The goal is to remove the whole idea of a first-year teacher because [a] candidate has been immersed in the pathway since they were a junior in high school,” she said.
Abrielle DeVere, a 16-year-old senior at George Washington High School in Charleston, is among the candidates enrolled in the pathway. She has wanted to be a teacher since she was in 8th grade, and the prospect of being able to earn college credit while still in high school was appealing to her.
“I’m kind of like piling up the credits while I can,” she said, adding, “I really have enjoyed the classes, and especially the student-teaching—I found that really interesting my first year.”
Last year, Abrielle was observing an elementary classroom, and this year she’s going to a middle school classroom. She’s mostly observing the teacher, but sometimes she has gotten to work directly with students. For example, she once taught a student “the difference between a ladder that you climb up and the word latter, like the latter of the two options,” she said.
The program has to contend with tough realities
That’s the kind of firsthand experience that state and county leaders are hoping will give high schoolers the teaching bug. But they also have to contend with negative societal messages against teaching and tough realities.
The average teacher salary in West Virginia is about $53,000, far below the national average, and the average starting salary is about $38,000.
The low pay of teaching hasn’t been a deterrent for Abrielle: “I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not going to have money anyways because, you know, houses are like $3 million—for not even a one-bedroom. For a one-bathroom house, that’s it,” she quipped. “Might as well have fun while you have no money.”
But the prevailing message she has gotten from her own teachers is: “Why?”
One of Abrielle’s teachers has said that she wishes she could recommend teaching as a career, but doesn’t feel like she can.
“She loves the kids, but she doesn’t love the workload and the extreme expectations and all of the other things—working 20 hours outside of your, like, actually paid time that you’re working and stuff like that,” Abrielle said. “But she does very much love having students and just all of that side of things. I’m hoping that I will be able to focus more on the students’ love than I will on everything else.”
Warren knows that teaching is a hard profession. But she hopes the grow-your-own pathway gets across the message that “being a teacher has great power.” The department will also convene participating students across the state and introduce them to award-winning teachers who can talk about what teaching means to them.
Ultimately, Warren said, she hopes all 55 counties will sign on to participate.
“There are a lot of students who are interested in becoming teachers,” she said. “We have to provide them the opportunities. We have to remove the barriers.”