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Military efforts could help alleviate Alabama’s teacher shortage

Servicemembers from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, N.C., gather at the MCRD Parris Island Education Center for a Troops to Teachers class on Feb. 19, 2014.

BRADY WOOD/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By KRISTA JOHNSON | Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser | Published: January 30, 2019

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Superintendent James Carter is near his wits’ end trying to find qualified teachers for his schools in Alabama’s rural Greene County, so much so that he is planning to ask for the school board’s support in providing new teachers with $2,000 sign-on bonuses.

In a district funded locally by just over the state minimum, at 11 mills, Greene County does not have a lot of extra cash to spend, Carter said. About 15 percent of its teacher positions are open.

To him, rural America seems somewhat forgotten.

“In order to replace teachers that are retiring and those that are choosing not to go into the field, it’s almost becoming a crisis to find good, qualified teachers in Alabama, especially where we are,” Carter said. “There’s not a lot of people that want to come and live in areas that are isolated from the urban centers.”

But help is in sight. Two military-led efforts are in the works to help school systems like Carter’s.

The first is a Department of Defense program that was established in 1993 as a means to ease transition of military servicemembers into civilian life and has put more than 20,000 veterans into classrooms nationally. Formerly administered by the Department of Education, Stillman College became the Education Department’s first community partner in the state to handle the Troops to Teachers program. The college chose to focus its efforts on staffing Greene and Hale counties schools, and in October 2018, it was awarded a $400,000 grant to do so.

Veterans who go through the program are offered stipends to cover the costs of education courses and licensing fees, in addition to incentive bonuses for those who sign three-year contracts in hard-to-staff schools, up to a combined $10,000.

Geared with an alternative certification, which first requires a bachelor’s degree and the passing of the PRAXIS exam, participants in the program can start teaching immediately while completing education courses within the three-year process to gain full certification — a win-win for the troops and the schools.

“I think it can be a game-changer for the Black Belt and these schools,” said Derwin Dubose, executive director of military and veteran programs at Stillman referring to a region in Alabama known for its rich topsoil. The college, he said, felt it was imperative to serve Stillman’s local communities.

A senior airman in the Air Force Reserves who is a product of schools in the region, Dubose believes having veterans in the schools can enhance the environment for students while fulfilling the needs of the former servicemembers.

“For folks transitioning out of the military, it can be a jarring transition, so teaching provides an opportunity to have a full schedule,” he said, pointing to the structured schedule and salaries of educators, in addition to participating in the retirement system.

“If a servicemember started at 18, he can retire at 38 and by 58 have two retirements, one from the federal government and one from the state,” Dubose said.

By going through the program, aside from the financial incentives, servicemembers gain an easier route into the profession, with Stillman providing direct connections to the school systems in need and offering counseling throughout the program.

So far, Dubose has received 40 applicants for the program, with the goal of having 50 ready to enter classrooms in August.

“We are looking forward to working with Stillman and the Troops to Teachers program,” Carter said. “We are certainly hoping this will give us a head start on next year’s recruiting, and we can utilize some of their experiences, and they can serve as role models for our students here.”

As troops that served our country so well, Carter said, these veterans can continue to serve as teachers, which is “certainly a plus for our community.”

Dubose is also a supporter of legislative efforts that could certify former Community College of the Air Force instructors to teach in K-through-12 schools.

“CCAF’s faculty development programs are closely aligned with the learning theory and instructional strategies found in colleges of education. The state recognizing CCAF’s teacher training program would allow qualified airmen to begin teaching without sacrificing GI Bill benefits or paying out of pocket for an additional education credential,” Dubose wrote in a letter to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office this month.

Similar legislation was passed in Florida in 2006. There, an instructor with a bachelor’s degree and at least one year of instruction experience can receive certification. Currently in Alabama, those instructors still would need to complete four education courses or to obtain a master’s degree in education to receive certification.

In the past few years, nearly 300 instructors have sought verification to begin teaching in Florida schools, said Jason Smith, director of credentialing programs for the Community College of the Air Force. He believes more instructors would take advantage of the program if it were offered outside of Florida.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to help improve the system here in Alabama — to bring more people here and to advance our children and to make that investment into our children, into our community,” he said.

“This can bring qualified individuals with a background in postsecondary education and a discipline and different perspective,” than regular-track educators, he added.

Dubose and other Air Force leaders are meeting with the Education Department and the governor’s office in early February to discuss the legislation’s details and potential.

Texas, Oklahoma and Idaho also are looking at similar legislation.

©2019 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)
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