04/07/06 — No money for teacher scholarships from the county

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No money for teacher scholarships from the county

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on April 7, 2006 1:49 PM

A scholarship introduced by county commissioners six years ago to entice students to become teachers will not be available this year due to lack of funding, officials say.

The Wayne County Teacher Scholarship Program was modeled after a similar program begun across the state years before to offset the teaching shortage. The N.C. Teaching Fellows Scholarship is awarded to 400 students each year on condition that they teach in a public school in the state for four years.

Wayne County became the first county in the state to adopt its own version when the commission approved it in 2000. Eight scholarships were offered annually, with the loans forgiven if students committed to teach in Wayne County for four years following college graduation.

But county money to maintain the program and expected support from private contributions did not materialize, Commissioner Atlas Price said.

"We wanted it to grow, but we haven't received that kind of support," he said.

Price said the board had been concerned about the program for some time. So, last month when County Manager Lee Smith met with the scholarship's trustee board, he recommended the scholarship applications not be accepted this year.

There is a possibility that the program will be reinstated, but county officials first want to explore other options or changes that might ensure each dollar is used wisely, Price said.

"We don't want to be negative. It's not like anyone has done anything bad. It's just not performing like it should," he said. "When we started it, one of the members of the board made a recommendation for the program, and we tried it. We had hoped to get contributions and to keep our teachers at Wayne County schools, but it didn't happen that way."

The eight scholarships were divided according to the institutions chosen. One scholarship for $8,000 a year went to a student attending a private university. Four recipients planning to attend Wayne Community College each received scholarships for $1,200 a year, and three students attending public universities each received scholarships of $5,000 a year.

Smith estimated the amount spent on the scholarship program each year at between $130,000 and $140,000.

Price said there have been problems with scholarship recipients defaulting on the loan, and that 70 percent of the recipients have not completed their training to return to teach in the local school system.

Because of that, Price said continuing the program for the coming year would not have been a wise investment.

"It was not productive enough for the amount being paid," he said.

But school officials who have fielded calls and monitored the success of the effort to recruit and retain teachers offer a different perspective.

Olivia Pierce, executive director for community relations, said the applications have typically been made available in early April as many high school students are preparing to graduate and go to college. This year's last-minute decision not to offer the scholarship money will be a disappointment to many families, she said.

"Throughout the year, I have had interested persons call, inquiring when applications would be available," she said.

On average, she said, there have been as many as 20 applicants for the college money each year.

Mrs. Pierce said that there have been some who defaulted for various reasons, eight to be exact. Some of the reasons given, she said, were because they changed majors or failed to meet grade-point requirements, while others opted instead to join the military or to teach in another school system. Even so, she said, 18 remain in college and four of those are expected to apply for jobs in the next school year.

Eleven have already completed college and are currently employed by the school system, she said.

"With the 11 that are working, we're very appreciative for this program," she said. "It has helped us meet the needs with the teaching shortage."

Smith called the decision not to accept applications this year a smart move by the county commissioners. He said the breather will also allow county officials time over the coming year to pursue other options to ensure scholarship money is used wisely.

"Everyone wants scholarships, but I think we need to look at other methods. We will still continue giving out four years' worth of scholarships, but we won't have new ones this year. We want to make sure we are spending county tax dollars wisely to truly recruit and retain teachers," he said.

While disappointed for the school system and potential scholarship beneficiaries, Mrs. Pierce said "we understand their need to explore all funding issues."

The scholarship committee, which includes six community members appointed by the commissioners and school boards, will remain intact, she said.

"We still have 18 in college, so we have to have an oversight for that until those have gone through the process," she said.

Hopefully, scholarship funding or another means of supporting potential teachers will be forthcoming, she added.

"It's a wonderful program, and it's a unique program," Mrs. Pierce said. "I have had other school systems in the state call to inquire about it."