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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

UNCP takes on new teacher support in region

A grant from Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation will fund a UNC Pembroke program that supports new teachers in the region.

Heather Higgins

Heather Higgins

Lisa Mitchell

Lisa Mitchell

Sara Simmons

Sara Simmons

Black Line

Two professors in the School of Education, Drs. Heather Higgins and Lisa Mitchell, and Dr. Sara Simmons, dean of the School of Graduate Studies, wrote a grant to establish the Partnership for the Retention of Education Professionals (PREP) for Anson, Cumberland, Montgomery, Richmond and Scotland county schools.

The one-year grant is for $60,000 and is renewable. PREP will focus on the mentoring relationship between the schools and beginning teachers. It will provide support services and resources, including an interactive website.

New teacher support is critical to stem the high turnover rate of beginning teachers. PREP will enable partnership school districts to offer highly strategic and specifically targeted support to their novice teachers.

A key feature is the funding of part-time “specialist” positions for teacher support in the five participating schools systems. PREP allows the schools the flexibility to construct programs best suited to their individual needs.

In recent years state funding for mentoring new teachers has been eliminated, and school districts have been challenged to find creative ways to continue to support them. PREP will provide critical resources to augment these programs.

PREP is ramping up this fall. The supplemental resources provided by the project are all the more timely and valuable because, beginning this school year, school districts are being held accountable for demonstrating that they are implementing plans for meeting new state standards for beginning teacher support programs and for mentors.

“This is an outreach program that puts us on the leading edge of new teacher support,” Dr. Simmons said. “We have high hopes for this and other initiatives in the future. We’ve had excellent support from many groups, including the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), Western Carolina University and the New Teacher Center (NTC) of Santa Cruz, California.”

“We’re very excited by the support of the prestigious Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation,” Dr. Mitchell said. “They are a good partner, in part, because they allowed us the freedom to design a program we think is appropriate for our region.”

A significant contributor to the success of this grant application was the Office of Sponsored Research and Programs (OSRP), led by Dr. Linda Little and with assistance from Delia Acevedo. This is the university’s first Z. Smith Reynolds grant, and OSRP conducted extensive planning and research, as well as ongoing communication with the foundation.

The threesome, all former school teachers, came together over the issue of beginning teacher support at a chance meeting. Dr. Higgins and Mitchell were new faculty members at UNCP when they met Dr. Simmons, who had already developed and road tested a training program for mentors of novice teachers.  

“Dr. Mitchell and I met in graduate school when our advisor put us together because of our common interest in new teacher training,” Dr. Higgins said. “It was good fortune that we came to UNCP together, and meeting Dr. Simmons was another piece of luck.”

They don’t plan on luck to produce the results that will merit renewal of the grant. Dr. Higgins laid down a foundation during a research fellowship in the summer of 2009 that produced survey findings from several school districts in the university’s service region.

PREP has four key areas: 1) leadership training, 2) support for mentor training, 3) direct support for beginning teachers, and 4) funding for part-time administrative support.

The program obtained advice and support from, among others, Janice Holt, director of Teacher Recruitment, Advising and Career Support at Western Carolina University. She has won grants from Z. Smith Reynolds and other funding sources.

“Leslie Winner at Z. Smith Reynolds gave us some really good advice when she pointed us in the direction of Janice Holt,” Dr. Simmons said. “She has over 10 years of programming experience in this area.”

One thing led to another when they linked up with the New Teacher Center, which provided a speaker for two of the multiple-district meetings at UNCP. Eric Hirsch, NTC’s chief of external affairs, is no stranger to North Carolina. He has led several initiatives, including the N.C. Working Conditions Survey that was under the auspices of the N.C. Professional Teaching Standards Commission.

Other speakers and special guests were: Annette Breaux, a national figure on new teacher retention; Dr. Carolyn McKinney, director of the N.C. Professional Teaching Standards Commission; Brandon Patterson, assistant director of DPI’s Educator Recruitment and Development Division; and Fred Williams, former human relations director for Durham Public Schools and now an NTC senior program consultant.

UNCP’s Office of University-School Programs, directed by Dr. Bryan Winters, has been an important ally in these outreach efforts. Housed in the School of Education, that office has provided both funding for speakers and logistical support.

“Five school districts accepted our offer to join PREP, but all 11 have benefitted from these meetings, which will continue,” Dr. Simmons said. “It’s been a powerful networking experience, and some have driven considerable distances to participate.”

The connections go beyond face-to-face meetings. A professional networking website that will share resources and feedback from across the region is in the works. “We are maximizing our funding this way,” Dr. Mitchell said.

“We have done a lot of this work without funding at all,” Dr. Simmons said. “We’re proud of the work we’ve done so far and of what we’ve accomplished.”

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