PINE BLUFF -- A new effort is underway in Pine Bluff to address a teacher shortage in area schools.
Go Forward Pine Bluff has launched an initiative to attract teachers to the city by providing tuition for current teachers who want to obtain master's degrees in their teaching areas. Area businesses have pledged $690,000 to fund the tuition costs of teachers interested in furthering their educations at one of three central Arkansas universities, according to Dr. Ryan Whatley, director of Go Forward Pine Bluff.
Under the Teach Pine Bluff Initiative, certified teachers with bachelor's degrees who want to obtain master's degrees and will commit to living and working in Pine Bluff for three years can qualify to have 100% of their tuition paid at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff or the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Whatley said the initiative is loosely based upon the El Dorado Promise, a scholarship program funded by Murphy Oil Co. that offers students who graduate from the El Dorado School District scholarships equal to the highest Arkansas public institution tuition rate to attend any two-year or four-year college or university in the United States.
Terms of the Teach Pine Bluff Initiative require teachers to earn their master's degrees within a four-year period. Once a master's degree is obtained, a participant must teach for a minimum of three years in the Pine Bluff School District, the Dollarway School District or the Watson Chapel School District.
The Pine Bluff School District is the largest of the three districts with 3,557 students. Of the 190 classroom teachers, 149 are certified while 41 are noncertified but have received waivers to teach, according to Superintendent Jeremy Owoh.
The Watson Chapel School District has 2,391 students and 178 classroom teachers, according to Superintendent Jerry Guess. Of those teachers, 158 are certified and 20 have received waivers.
The Dollarway School District is the smallest of the three, with 980 students and 77 teachers, seven of whom have received waivers.
"Ninety percent of our teachers are certified, up from 70 percent three years ago, so we're really excited about that," said Barbara Warren, superintendent of Dollarway Schools.
The three superintendents were part of the group assembled by Go Forward Pine Bluff to forge the Teach Pine Bluff Initiative, which they believe will benefit the districts, teachers in the districts and ultimately the students.
"It's going to stabilize the staff some," Guess said. "It's intended to incentivize current teachers who want to get an advanced degree to get involved in a master's program, and the end result is that they will agree to stay in the district for a certain number of years."
The Pine Bluff School District and the Dollarway School District are currently under control of the Arkansas Board of Education. Owoh said input from the superintendents was crucial to ensuring that the program targeted the needs of the districts.
"That was one of the major components, to make sure that it addresses the needs we have right here in Pine Bluff," Owoh said. "The staff of Go Forward Pine Bluff was instrumental in making sure that we were involved in every step of the initiative."
Whatley said the group hopes to award a minimum of nine fellowships over the next three years.
"The Teach Pine Bluff fellows can use the award letter to help secure financing of their education, and as long as they remain in good academic standing and stay in accordance with the policies and procedures of the program, we will reimburse their tuition expense," he said.
To apply, Whatley said teachers can go online to the Go Forward Pine Bluff home page and find the application under the Teach Pine Bluff link.
"They have to agree to teach in one of the three districts for three years after they earn their degree, and they must continue teaching while they earn the degree, as well," he said.
Whatley said the goal of the pilot program is to sign up at least 30 teachers over the three-year period. He added that it's possible more could go through the program depending on circumstances.
"I had a person ask me if they only have a year left for their master's, if we'll pay for that," Whatley said. "Well, sure. That cuts down on the amount of tuition we would have to pay, and we still get the benefit of the agreement."
Whatley said differences in tuition at the universities also could be a factor.
"It's possible that we can send 11 or 12 through in a year, depending on where they choose to earn their degree," he said.
The program also offers teachers who already have master's degrees the opportunity to become nationally certified.
"If a teacher already holds a master's degree, of course they can get a second master's as long as it is in their content area, but they may opt to take the test for national board certification," Whatley said. "We also want to get as many national board-certified teachers in the classroom as we can possibly get."
Teachers interested in getting national board certification can receive training through the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative in Pine Bluff, Whatley said, and Go Forward Pine Bluff will pay the cost of the initial examination.
"For a teacher to have national board certification, it helps with the salary, it helps with the pedagogy in the classroom, and it helps with the overall classroom experience for the students," Whatley said.
Applicants for a National Board Certification Grant must complete all training and test modules from the cooperative and obtain letters from the cooperative director acknowledging completion. They also must provide documentation that a majority of their students consistently achieves above-average standardized test scores and classroom grades in the content area over three years, and submit documentation of classroom performance during the interview phase.
Teachers who pass the national exam as a Teach Pine Bluff fellow also must commit to teach four years in the same district during the time of funding approval, Whatley said, adding that a national board certification grant is also an option for teachers who hold bachelor's degrees.
More information about the initiative and application forms can be found online at goforwardpinebluff.org/teachpinebluff/.
State Desk on 06/02/2019
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