07/12/09 — Teaching program gives workers flexibility

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Teaching program gives workers flexibility

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 12, 2009 12:25 AM

Julie Fail always wanted to be a teacher but somehow it was never feasible for her to return to college to complete the two-year degree begun years ago.

While working at O'Berry Center, she learned about Wachovia Partnership East, a teacher training program at Wayne Community College allowing candidates to complete their education without having to travel all the way to East Carolina University.

Encouraged to go for it, Ms. Fail was accepted on a full scholarship in the program's first cohort, which began in 2003.

"Had it not been for that program, I would have never tried," she says now.

The set-up allowed Ms. Fail to maintain her job, salary and benefits while completing her education in the evenings and through online courses. Essentially, she "went to community colleges all over North Carolina" without leaving the county, she said.

"Including the community college (portion), I went five-and-a-half years," she said, graduating at age 47. She recently completed her second year as an exceptional children's teacher at Grantham School.

"I love it. It's the hardest thing I have ever done but I was blessed to have supportive family and friends," she said. "I feel fulfilled and blessed to be able to do what I have always wanted to do. ... Hopefully I can enjoy 20 more years with the state."

Verlie Pittman is another of the program's success stories. The fourth grade teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School was a teacher assistant for about eight years before exploring the local option to complete her degree.

"It was great. I had actually tried to go back to school before the program, so have had some experience doing with without the program and with the program," she said. "With the program was so much better. They had it all set up for you, even registration."

When she graduated in Dec. 2007, she was fortunate to get a job at the same school where she has now been for nearly a dozen years. She has nothing but praise for the program.

"If it was not for Partnership East -- when I was not in the program, I was about ready to call it quits -- being able to manage everything and take the classes, they had the classes where it was reasonable for someone who was working. It was perfect for me," she said. "It was most definitely worth it."

Dr. Debbie Grady, coordinator of the South Central Consortium, said she has been pleased with the caliber of teachers drawn to the program.

"Most students coming into our program would be considered non-traditional. About 97 percent of my students work and they're either place-bound by work or home or family," she said. "They would choose an alternate way to earn their bachelor's degree."

ECU realized early on there could be a "pool of potential teachers" in communities like ours, Ms. Grady said.

"This brings the program to the student and then the program is tailored to fit the students' needs," she said. "They do not have to travel to Greenville to meet with advisors."

Instead, Ms. Grady serves in that role, something unheard of at larger colleges and universities, especially since she remains hands-on, following students throughout the program.

"We operate as cohorts so when the students come together in August, they move through the entire program together so they really build collaborative relationships, provide support for the others in the class," she said. "Each cohort has a cap of 24. In the past if we ran over that, we could either create another cohort. If there were not enough, we would waitlist them.

"We have not had to turn away any qualified students as of yet. Now we have no waiting list."

Come fall, there will be five elementary education cohorts and one each for special education and middle school teacher training. The age span of students enrolled has been from 18 to 55, Ms. Grady said, with 40 percent of the students younger than 24.

The candidates range from those lacking the educational component of the degree to those with no college background at all. In the latter case, the community college offers the general coursework, then ECU provides courses that will prepare them for the classroom.

Recruiting for the year-round program is primarily through schools systems, with an estimated 58 percent of its students currently employed in the district.

"We started out serving east of I-95, and now serve the western and central part of our state, from Manteo to the mountains," Ms. Grady said.

In the fall of 2008, 367 were enrolled in local Partnership East courses. This fall, the projection is 415.

In May, 65 graduated from the south central consortium, which comprises eight counties -- Wayne, Duplin, Greene, Lenoir, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Harnett. Another 40 are expected to graduate in December.

And interestingly, the only time any of the graduates step foot on the campus of East Carolina may be to attend a seminar or commencement exercises.

Wayne Community has been especially responsive, providing office and classroom space as well as courses needed.

In light of the pending teacher shortage, as well as the current economic situation -- plus the fact that the state has done away with allowing school retirees to return to the classroom -- there will be even more need for the services the Partnership provides.

"I have calls every day from unemployed who need to go back to school," Ms. Grady said. "We have begun to get phone calls from places like the Employment Security Commission (and) we're beginning to work with other agencies."

As a former principal, she understands how difficult it is to fill positions.

"We would have openings and no licensed teacher (candidates)," she said. "Lateral entry teachers (coming with a four-year degree in a related subject but no education courses), some turn out to be great teachers but if you come into that with no training in classroom management, the attrition rate is high.

"So if you can get a student who has been prepared through education programs, who understands the development learning stages of children, we just feel like that's a better route."

Their placement rate has been exemplary, she pointed out. All of the students who have graduated so far have jobs when they graduate, and most already employed in the school system have a teaching job waiting for them when they finish.

"I have not encountered a situation yet where the graduate was not placed in a position," she said.

Charles Ivey, principal at Spring Creek Elementary School, has hired several and calls the home-grown training program a "godsend."

"First of all, while they're assistants they're getting immersed in their educational program, they quickly become proficient and then they're so much more ready to move into the classroom in a teaching situation," he said. "At the same time, for several years, the first place I have gone to find assistants is Dr. Grady's program because they're aware of what they're getting into, they're committed as educational professionals, and at the same time they have skills that need to be honed and things to learn. They're more eager. They're on a committed path to improving themselves."

In many cases, financial aid is available, with discounts given to school employees -- whether they are currently a substitute, bus driver or teacher assistant, Ms. Grady said. ECU has also had grants to entice special education teachers, as well as a scholarship fund geared to teacher assistants.

The takeaway message, the director said, is, if someone wants to be a teacher, there's a way to make that happen.

"There's a way through this program and through the community college. The courses are affordable, they're convenient and there's certainly a way," she said. "If they are interested in teaching or earning a bachelor's degree in teaching, it's convenient to obtain the degree now -- they can remain in their own homes, take care of their families, continue their jobs and get a degree."