Amid teacher shortages, Mississippi embraces a movement to grow their own To address chronic teacher shortages, school districts across the country are creating residency programs to better recruit and train new teachers. One program in Jackson, Miss., is already paying off.

Amid teacher shortages, Mississippi embraces a movement to grow their own

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Many schools across the country are grappling with teacher shortages. NPR's Cory Turner has been looking into some of the hardest-hit school systems and what they're doing about it. Today on Morning Edition, we heard about some extra challenges that big-city districts face in attracting and keeping teachers. And now, Cory's got the story of a big idea that is helping districts all over the country grow their own teachers.

KIMBERLY PATE: All right - da, da, da, da (ph). I think we're ready. Ah...

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Lots of states have these Grow Your Own programs - Illinois, Texas, Tennessee. But I'm going to focus on Mississippi's and the impact it's having in the state capital, Jackson.

PATE: All right. Let's build some words.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Bee (ph), baa (ph), bu (ph).

TURNER: First-grade teacher Kimberly Pate is 52 and worked for nearly two decades in Jackson schools as a classroom assistant.

PATE: As a paraprofessional, of course, the pay is peanuts. So I was working literally two full-time jobs to make ends meet.

TURNER: With four children of her own, Pate couldn't afford to go back to college to become a fully licensed teacher - that is, until she was offered a slot in something called the Mississippi Teacher Residency. The pitch was hard to believe. She'd get a fully-paid-for master's degree and a better salary, and Pate could be a student while still working full time.

PATE: If it wasn't a full salary, I don't think I will be able to do it.

TURNER: But it was, and she did. And soon she'll have her master's degree plus dual certification in elementary and special education, both in critically short supply here.

PATE: It's like, how could you pass that up?

TURNER: Like many big-city districts, Jackson, Miss., has a teacher shortage, though it's not particularly new. On average, the district loses 1 in 5 teachers every year. The pay doesn't help, with Mississippi ranking near the bottom nationally. Jackson also struggles with poverty and a years-long water crisis. This is why the Mississippi Department of Education is focusing its residency program in Jackson and other hard-to-staff districts across the state.

PATE: What about this - th(ph) - er(ph) - own(ph).


PATE: Thrown - tearing it up this morning. All right.

TURNER: In return for her degree, Kimberly Pate agreed to keep teaching in Jackson for at least three years. Judging by the way her first graders smile and laugh and work hard at her silly phonics games, that's a win for them too.

PATE: Let's do it - n(ph) - t(ph).

KEEGAN: Nt(ph).

PATE: N-T, Keegan, N-T. Come here, Keegan. Come to the board, Keegan. Come on, boy. Come on, Keegan (laughter).

TURNER: Eighteen full-fledged Jackson teachers have already come out of the residency program and about as many are on their way. Jennifer Carter got her master's in December, and already she's the educator equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.


JENNIFER CARTER: You take your test?


CARTER: OK. We'll take it tomorrow then.

TURNER: Carter is an in-demand special education teacher by day, and by night, or at least before and after school, she does another hard-to-fill job.


CARTER: Are you ready?

TURNER: Bus driver.

CARTER: Hey, y'all might want to let some of those windows down.

TURNER: There's also elementary school teacher Jonah Thomas.


JONAH THOMAS: I could have helped you with the cart. I'm not signing in.

TURNER: He's just 22, in a crisp black shirt, the sleeves short enough to show his brother's name, Jonathan, tattooed on his right arm. Thomas studied economics in college.

THOMAS: When they came around, I was still looking for accounting jobs and stuff like that. So if it weren't for this program, I wouldn't even be a teacher.

TURNER: But he is, dapping up kids in the cafeteria as they rush to greet him.

THOMAS: Good morning. Good morning. Good morning, Kylie (ph). Hey, LJ (ph).

TURNER: See, the Mississippi Teacher Residency isn't just about lifting up folks who were already working in schools, it's also about reaching college grads, like Thomas, who'd never considered teaching.

THOMAS: What's the word?


THOMAS: OK. What's...

TURNER: Districts across the U.S. know they have to expand the pool of potential teachers somehow. While Thomas is inexperienced, he knows firsthand the power of great teaching.

THOMAS: I watched my mom teach, growing up as a little boy. She treated other kids like they were her kid. I remember being jealous sometimes (laughter). I was that type of child.

TURNER: Thomas says taking master's level classes while also working has been exhausting, but also kind of amazing.

THOMAS: Everything that we learn, we can apply to our classroom. Like, we have classes sometimes where we may learn Wednesday, we can come to the school and apply it Thursday.

TURNER: This fast-track training program is also meant to diversify the teacher force because students can benefit a lot from seeing themselves reflected in their teachers. Young Black men like Jonah Thomas are rare in teaching, especially at the elementary school level. Now that he's in the classroom and nearly done with his master's, how does he feel?

THOMAS: This program saved me.

TURNER: One of the ideas that is central to Grow Your Own programs, as the name suggests, is that candidates be personally invested in the communities where they teach. Ideally, they're local, not just parachuting in from the outside. Sixty-one-year-old Pastor Dwayne Williams attended Jackson Public Schools as a child, and now he's teaching second graders.

DWAYNE WILLIAMS: He bought an ice cream cone from the shopkeeper. Hmm, he thought.

TURNER: Mr. D, as he's known, sports a short, graying beard and suspenders. The kids are clearly having fun as he helps them prep for a multiple-choice test.



WILLIAMS: A is correct.


TURNER: Williams says he hadn't planned on becoming a full-time teacher at his age.

WILLIAMS: I just thought I was just going to substitute a couple of days a week, but I became passionate about it.

TURNER: Williams says he understands the toll that poverty can take on families that are doing everything they can to escape it.

WILLIAMS: A lot of the parents are working three and four jobs, so they are not at home to raise children. So who is raising the children? Children are.

TURNER: In addition to teaching some 30 second-graders, Williams has also started a mentoring program.

WILLIAMS: If there's a problem in the classroom with one of the students, they'll send them to me. We sit. We talk. And you may not change everybody, but you can change somebody.

TURNER: Jennifer Carter says one of the things she enjoys about being a special educator is supporting students who she says are acting out in class because they need help reading or understanding math, but they're too embarrassed to ask.

CARTER: They would rather be the problem child than the child that has a problem they can't work through.

TURNER: Carter says when she was younger, she never expected to go to college, let alone earn a master's degree. And Kimberly Pate says if it weren't for the Mississippi Teacher Residency, she likely wouldn't be where she is now either...

PATE: Can Gwendolyn come up and help you?


PATE: You think so. Awesome.

TURNER: ...In her own classroom, teaching children how to read one little win at a time.

PATE: All right. Here we go. What's the first sound, Gwendolyn?

GWENDOLYN: Puh (ph). Paint.

GWENDOLYN: Paint. Awesome. Ya did good, so both of y'all get a treat.

TURNER: Pate's first graders smile on the edge of their chairs. It's hard work reading, but they know they have Ms. Pate, and she's not going anywhere.

You ready? I need you to blow me away. Cory Turner, NPR News...



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