New Union County partnership offers steep tuition discount for home-grown teachers
The Union County school board unanimously approved a new program Tuesday that will help high school students and assistants become teachers at little to no cost.
The move came less than a week after a state report documented a spike in teacher vacancies across the state, coupled with a decline in people entering North Carolina teacher preparation programs.
“We must find ways to minimize the barriers and maximize the opportunity for students to enter this rewarding profession,” South Piedmont Community College President Maria Pharr said Wednesday at a news conference announcing the new TeachUCPS program.
It’s a partnership between the school district, South Piedmont and Wingate University, building on existing programs to help Union County students earn tuition-free credits while in high school, attend community college and move on to the private university, which has campuses in Wingate, Charlotte and Hendersonville, with steeply discounted tuition.
The announcement took place at Weddington Middle School, where 25 students from nearby Weddington High are piloting a new career-tech program to prepare for teaching jobs. Starting in August, Weddington High students in grades 10-12 will be able to enroll in a “pre-apprentice” program. They’ll take teacher-prep classes, work with teachers and students in elementary and middle school, then qualify to work as teacher assistants while attending South Piedmont at no charge after graduation.
After earning an associate’s degree, they’ll qualify for Gateway to Wingate scholarships to earn a bachelor’s degree, paying no more than $2,500 a year in tuition. Wingate tuition is currently $40,000 a year.
The career-tech teacher program will expand to Porter Ridge High in 2024.
Olivia Russo, a senior at Weddington High, said she’s working with a kindergarten class at Weddington Elementary this year.
“This class has really helped me to realize that I do want to go into elementary education,” she said. “It has not only helped me create a bond with my kindergarten kids but also learn the curriculum and what goes toward running a classroom every day.”
Russo said she plans to major in elementary education at Auburn University next year.
Students who take part in the teacher-prep path at Weddington and Porter Ridge will also have the option of going straight to a four-year college to study education, though they’d have to pay full tuition at whatever school they choose.
But by the time the first students actually head for college, Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said the district hopes to line up loans that would reduce tuition costs to zero — and wouldn’t have to be repaid if students teach for three years in a high-poverty Title I school in the district or for four years in a lower-poverty school.
“Whether that’s within our local budget or partnering with municipalities or partnering with third parties who want to invest in this program, we think this is a great opportunity for our community to invest in our future teachers by offsetting the cost of that tuition,” Houlihan said.
Also starting next school year, students in all Union County high schools can take part in a dual-enrollment teacher prep program that allows them to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree from South Piedmont. After that, they could use a Gateway to Wingate scholarship to finish a bachelor’s degree in two years and be ready to earn a teaching license.
“And within a two-year time frame after graduating from high school, Union County Public Schools will then hire them to be a full-time teacher,” Houlihan said. He said the district has already started talking to eighth graders about signing up when they register for high school.
The school district already helps teacher assistants with an associate’s degree earn bachelor’s degrees to become teachers. Houlihan said that program is expanding to allow those who don’t have associate’s degrees to earn them at South Piedmont, then advance to Wingate using the Gateway scholarship. Union County schools would cover the gap so the assistants would pay no tuition, as long as they return to work for the district as teachers.
Last week, the Department of Public Instruction told the state Board of Education that North Carolina’s public schools opened with more than 5,500 vacancies this school year, up from 1,750 the previous year. Union County Public Schools opened with 76 vacancies, and Houlihan said now, early in the second semester, it has a few more than that.
Union County’s new “grow your own” teacher program is part of a trend toward offering programs that help students and employees become teachers. It also comes as North Carolina’s schools push students to earn degrees and career credentials that prepare them to earn a good living, and as business, philanthropic and political leaders call for career planning to start in middle school.
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