By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant has come into office preaching fiscal conservatism, but he has found at least one new expenditure he likes – to recruit more alternative-route teachers to Mississippi’s low-performing school districts.
In last week’s State of the State speech, Bryant endorsed a Mississippi Economic Council proposal to spend $12.5 million per year to recruit 1,100 alternative-route teachers to work in impoverished areas.
For years, state and local school officials have struggled to recruit teachers to areas with a high poverty rate, such as the Mississippi Delta. The national Teach for America program and the Mississippi Teacher Corps program have filled some of the gaps. They recruit recent college graduates and put them through an intense two-year program while they teach in a low-performing, impoverished school system.
MEC in its Blueprint Mississippi, which is touted as a plan for the state’s economic progress, recommended spending more on the alternative route teaching programs.
In his State of the State speech, Bryant said, “I am a proponent of Teach for America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps, two programs that bring in bright and energetic young leaders from many different disciplines to teach in our most challenging schools … Keeping the best teachers in the classroom must be a priority.”
Andy Mullins, chief of staff to University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones and co-founder and director of the Teacher Corps, which is housed at Ole Miss, said his program and Teach for America both recruit outstanding college graduates and provide them with the skills needed to be effective in the classroom.
Mullins said the Teacher Corps, which started in 1989, operates on $265,000 in state appropriations each year. He said generally 40 to 60 people participate in the two-year program. Of those who finish, 95 percent remain in education and about 45 percent remain for more than two years in the district where they have been teaching.
Teach for America currently receives about $3 million annually in state funds and has about 520 people teaching in the state.
With an increase in appropriations to $12.5 million annually to the two programs, the state could have 1,100 teachers in the two programs.
“We think this could make a big difference,” Claiborne Barksdale, chief executive officer of the Barksdale Reading Institute, wrote in a Blueprint summary.
House Appropriations Chair Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said of the teaching programs, “I like them. I think they are effective. But right now I don’t know about the money for anything. We haven’t gotten that far down the road.”
Jack Gadd, Benton County superintendent, said the alternative route teaching programs help school districts like his.
“If you can get a local person who is going to stay there and teach, that is the best thing,” Gadd said. “But if you can’t, (the alternative-route teacher) is the next best thing.”
State law allows various ways to obtain teacher certification other than by going through a traditional four-year education program. With both Teach for America and the Teacher Corps, a person would teach in the field related to his or her college degree. Both programs start with an intense summer program, then the person is placed in a district at the beginning of the school year where he or she has the same benefits and salary as a beginning teacher.
Through the two years, the teacher-in-training in the Teacher Corps program returns to Ole Miss during the summer and on weekends for additional training.
Mullins said the program is challenging but rewarding.
Pete Smith with the state Department of Education said Superintendent Tom Burnham supports the program.
“The ones who are here now are doing a great job,” Smith said. “Dr. Burnham would be the first to tell you that.”