State of Our Schools: Universities collaborate on honors-style teacher training

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

When University of Mississippi senior Doug Odom graduates next month, he will travel around North America with his father before beginning a master’s program in higher education administration.
A member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and multiple honor societies – including the prestigious Phi Betta Kappa – Odom plans to pursue a career in university administration.
Had a newly announced program been available four years sooner, however, the Jackson native could have been preparing for an assignment as a public school teacher.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State University recently announced a collaborative effort to entice more of Mississippi’s best college students to become educators.
The Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program will offer a full academic scholarship and other incentives to honors college-caliber students at each university who agree to major in education and serve as English or math teachers in Mississippi for five years.
Odom admits it would have been very attractive to him when he graduated from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in 2009 having made a 31 on the ACT.
“I definitely think it would have appealed to me,” he said. “Coming out of high school, one of the main factors I looked at in choosing colleges was the financial aspect.
“It would have appealed to me that it was all expenses paid, and it was an integrated program where you got to work with other people. I also like that it is something that goes above and beyond four years of college.”

FIVE-YEAR FUNDING
The MET program will be funded for five years by a $12.9 million gift from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation in Jackson.
“I think it is exactly the kind of thing that will attract higher performers,” said Hank Bounds, the head of the state’s university system and former state superintendent of education.
The program hopes to lure those students with a package that pays full tuition, room and board. It also includes meal money, textbook costs, a computer stipend and study abroad.
“This is as good as any scholarship we give,” said Richard Blackbourn, dean of Mississippi State University’s College of Education.
It also will carry prestige. The highly-selective program seeks students with at least a 28 on the ACT and the high GPAs, class ranks and community service credentials found in honors college candidates. By creating a cohort of high-performing students, it will help remove a stigma – fair or not – that education is not a very demanding major.
Its selectivity will instill pride in its participants. Some of them also will be in the honors college at their respective university, although that won’t necessarily be required.
“I think this program will be great for folks that have strengths in their content area like English and mathematics but may not have been drawn to teaching because of its perception,” said Lina Trullinger, who will direct the program for MSU.

COULD BE PERSUASIVE
Lindsay Linhares and Gracy Hewes are seniors in Mississippi State University’s Shackouls Honors College. Each said she is committed to her current career choice – public service and physical therapy respectively – but believes the scholarship program would have drawn several college classmates into the field of education.
“I think if high school students are on the fence about education, it could definitely persuade them,” Hewes said.
Linhares thinks the scholarship and the study abroad opportunities would be particularly appealing.
“I think this is a great way to find people who want to teach and to train them so they can later make a great impact on the future leaders of the state,” she said.
Odom also feels the program’s sense of mission resonates.
“If they had an easy to remember mantra and mission statement, I think that could be a huge deciding factor,” he said.
Ryan Niemeyer, who will direct the program for Ole Miss, said reading the essays of students who have applied for next fall’s inaugural class has been revealing.
“A lot of them say that people have tried to persuade them to do something else because of the low pay and work that goes into teaching,” Niemeyer said. “A lot of them were able to articulate why teaching is so important. Many also cited social justice and said they wanted to influence students to develop the same passion for English or math or that they have gotten so much from education and they see so many kids or teachers not engaged and they want to make a difference.”
Selection decisions are currently being made on this fall’s class, but Niemeyer said UM is still accepting applications for math spots. MSU has already picked its 20 students, and its initial class will have a 3.85 grade-point average and a composite ACT score of 29. Both Niemeyer and Trullinger will soon begin recruiting for the second class.
“Even before the inception of this program, we have had a lot of brilliant students and sometimes it gets drowned out in the dialogue about education how amazing some of these students are,” Trullinger said. “I think one of the good things about this program will be letting these kids shine.”

SEMINAR CLASSES
The program aims not only to attract top-caliber students into education, but it also plans to give them a unique training experience. Although they will follow the same education curriculum as classmates not in the program, participants also will be enrolled in a special seminar class each semester.
The seminar will cover such topics as what it means to be a teacher, the joys and excitement of teaching, the challenges of poverty and other issues educators will encounter in the field. It may also include a leadership class and special honor-level classes.
At least once per semester and during the summer, the cohort from both universities will jointly attend seminars held on either campus.
Students also will travel to high-performing schools in the United States and around the world, perhaps going on multiple week trips during their sophomore and junior years.
“We want to take them to exemplary schools to show them what a great school can look like,” Trullinger said. “…They will get field experiences an ordinary teacher education program candidate wouldn’t have. I think those experiences are really going to foster a sense of the power of change.”
The goal also is for the students to bond from living together and taking classes together, so they will have a support network to call upon after graduation, Trullinger said.
The only commitment is for participants to teach in a Mississippi school, but program leaders are seeking additional funding for those who decide to go into high-needs schools.
Bounds, meanwhile, said the Legislature should a salary bonus to all teachers who graduate from the program.
“Getting some of Mississippi’s best and brightest students who have a passion for giving back and a passion for service, there is an opportunity to make a difference and an impact in Mississippi,” Niemeyer said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com

About the Series
THE DAILY JOURNAL continues its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the second installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi. Today’s stories explore ways to better prepare teachers for the classroom and a new program designed to attract more high-performing college students to the field. The next four days will look at alternate route programs, critical needs districts, teacher evaluations, high-performing educators and retention, among other topics.
To view the entire series, visit http://educationmatters.djournal.com/state-of-our-schools