By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
U.S. Senator Doug Jones introduced legislation on Friday aimed to help alleviate the teacher shortage crisis in Alabama and the U.S. through competitive grants.
The Classrooms Reflecting Communities Act would authorize grants to establish “Grow Your Own” programs which would recruit teacher candidates from the surrounding community and support them as they work toward teacher certification.
“We need to do everything we can to inspire young people to become teachers, to help schools retain teachers and to make sure that they have the resources they need in order to be successful,” Jones said in a press release.
The grants, Jones said in a recent phone call with the media, can be used for various needs like supplementing pay or teacher training, all of which is left up to the individual getting the grant.
Fifty-nine school districts in Alabama would be eligible for these grants. Jones said the goal is to recruit and retain teachers who have strong local roots and reflect the diversity of their classrooms.
The lack of qualified teachers in Alabama classrooms has been a growing problem for the state.
In the 2017-2018 school year, there were more than 1,700 teachers in grades seven through 12 who were not certified to teach the English, math, social studies, science or special education classes they were assigned.
State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, told ADN that having more teachers who come from their communities can be very important for student achievement.
“One of the things research has shown, when a student looks like or identifies with a teacher, it can really increase their achievement and growth in school and it even leads to higher graduation rates,” Collins said. She chairs the House Education Policy Committee in the Alabama Legislature.
There are already some programs underway in the state that are trying to tackle this issue.
The University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps program has scholarships designed to put qualified teachers into rural and high-needs schools. The teacher can get up to $10,000 in scholarships as long as they teach in a school that is in the Black Belt Region, a rural school or a high-needs school for at least three consecutive years.
“We want to make sure that the teachers who we are offering a scholarship to really are going to be in service to Alabama and are going to districts that are having these terrible shortages,” Susan Hester, the Black Belt Teacher Corps Coordinator told ADN.
She said they have employed 17 graduates through this program who are working in schools in the Black Belt region, one in a rural school in Northeast Alabama and one serving in a high-needs inner city school in Mobile.
Hester said she greatly supports Jones’ bill and thinks it is a great way for students to support their own communities.
“The students want to stay where they live,” Hester said. “They want to build a life there and I think it’s fantastic the way they feel about their community, that it really is a calling for them to go back and mentor the next generation.”
Hester also said UWA has developed a three-in-one program that allows education students to be certified in elementary education, early childhood education and special education.
“We are trying every way that we can think of to really fill that rural need, because a lot of times you have to wear a lot of different hats for those rural schools,” Hester said.
The Legislature also passed a law earlier this year that allows for longer emergency teacher contracts for educators who don’t have a teaching certificate. The contracts were extended from 12 to 24 months, which allows the teacher more time to be fully certified.
The Alabama Teacher Shortage Task Force presented 23 recommendations in how to recruit more teachers during the State School Board meeting in October.
Jeff Langham presented the recommendations and said that nearly every district in Alabama has turned to hiring teachers on an emergency or provisional certificates.
Some retention recommendations from the task force include creating a Tier III retirement plan as an option to replace Tier II; making national board certification bonus equivalent to the amount received for a master’s degree on the state salary matrix; and develop strategies to deal with mental health issues of students.
Changes to the retirement plans would take legislative action.