The Tennessee Department of Education is expanding its previously launched educator preparation initiative, Grow Your Own, to train more teachers in the state. It’s awarding $2 million in grants across seven universities to reduce vacancies and diversify teaching ranks.
Colleges include Tennessee State, Austin Peay State and Lipscomb Universities. The seven universities will be partnering with 35 school districts.
The grants will be used to offset tuition, textbooks and fees for 262 aspiring teachers who are selected to participate in the initiative. Overall, between state, school district and university contributions, students will be able to obtain a degree at no cost.
Some education leaders say that both the overall shortage and racial disparities are results of a lack of funding and access to teacher certification programs.
“Right now it’s [about] removing the barrier of cost,” says Vanessa Garcia, a professor in the College of Education at Lipscomb University. “As our country continues to live with COVID and people’s lives are directly impacted … it’s even more important to be able to provide this opportunity to those who may not be able to afford it otherwise.”
She says school districts have been faced with teacher shortages for the last few years, and the pandemic is leading to a decline even in substitute teachers.
Lipscomb, she says, is partnering with the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System to provide more than 40 certified teachers overall. It will expand a current agreement to help the district certify more than a dozen Clarksville-Montgomery teaching assistants — who are currently pursuing their master’s degrees at the university.
Boosting Teachers of Color
Garcia also says Lipscomb is making a point to intentionally identify aspiring teachers of color.
“That is a proponent that we directly attached in our grant with the Tennessee Department of Education,” says Garcia. “We’re looking for diverse candidates.”
Tennessee’s most recent available educator race and ethnicity data show that only 14.5% of the state’s teachers identify as a race other than white (3% of educators were unidentified). This is despite nearly 40% of the state’s public school students being children of color.
In Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, which also has a partnership with Austin Peay State University, about 85% of teachers are white, while half its student population identifies as children of color.
“I think it’s important for students to always feel accepted. And that’s something that is a passion of ours,” says Phyliss Casebolt, the director of federal projects at Clarksville-Montgomery. “That’s something that we feel is critically important because it matters, most of all, how it impacts our students.”
In previous years, Casebolt says that the district made recruitment pushes at HBCUs and predominately Hispanic-serving institutions. But the district’s efforts were rarely successful because of competition from other schools.
Now, the district’s partnerships with Lipscomb and Austin Peay allow them to recruit directly from the Clarksville community, which has grown in diversity during the past few years.
“[We want] to find answers within our own community,” says Casebolt. “We need to meet the needs of our students and equipment them to be successful in the world.”
Other districts benefiting from the initiative include Metro Nashville, Williamson, Putnam and Wilson County schools.