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Dark Horse Fellows: A grow-your-own teacher program

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  • How do you attract teachers to rural public schools? In Clinton City Schools, the answer is found in its high school students.
  • “We need teachers who are cheerleaders for the profession.” Attracting top teaching talent starts locally. Find out how one district is tackling this problem.

Vevlyn Lowe has been the middle school band teacher at Sampson Middle School in Clinton for 23 years. During that time, Lowe has seen the struggle that districts like her own have when it came to attracting educators.

In 2020, she began pursuing the idea of creating a “grow-your-own” teacher program — a teacher preparation program where current students commit to returning to the district as teachers. In Clinton City Schools, this program is known as Dark Horse Fellows.

By the fall of 2021, Lowe secured funds to support the first class of fellows. 

For a state dealing with a teacher shortage, the school district sees this program as a way to encourage more students to become teachers.

How Dark Horse Fellows works

Clinton isn’t the first district to have this idea. Lowe began by reaching out to Matt Bristow-Smith and Leigh Ann Webb at Edgecombe County Public Schools, who recently started a similar program called Edgecombe County Scholar Teachers. While Lowe eventually went in a slightly different direction, the resources she received from Bristow-Smith and Webb allowed her to begin the process of designing a program for Clinton City Schools. 

In Sampson County, Dark Horse Fellows is a teacher preparatory program designed to support Clinton High School students with a passion for education. Throughout their time in the program, students gain work experience, mentorship, and work-based learning opportunities. The program targets students from underrepresented populations — meaning students of color and males.

During their sophomore years at Clinton High School, students can apply for the Dark Horse Fellows program. In the program, they take community college courses, assist in classrooms, and visit school of education campuses across the state. At the end of their senior year, two students will be selected to receive a forgivable loan of $10,000 per year at a four-year university. This forgivable loan is renewable for up to four years. For every year that Dark Horse Fellows return and work in Clinton City Schools, the loan will be reduced by $10,000. 

The Anonymous Trust has provided the Dark Horse Fellow program with the seed money it needs to start this program. Margaret Turlington, Simple Gifts Fund coordinator, said the goal is for the local community to embrace the program.

Turlington said Lowe is the perfect fit for the job. 

“As the lifelong educator that she’s been, she’s seeing the decrease in folks coming in and not having a fully staffed school at the beginning of the school here, and believes that this is one spoke in the wheel of where we can get our educators,” Turlington said. 

Woodlyne Pierre works one-on-one with students at her internship at Sunset Avenue Elementary School. Courtesy of Vevlyn Lowe

Lowe, who has worked at Sampson Middle School for nearly her entire career, said she hopes this will be just one way to attract teachers to Sampson County. 

“Teacher shortage is a national problem. It is disproportionately affecting rural schools,” Lowe said. “I believe it (homegrown teacher programs) are just one way to help that problem.” 

Creating opportunities for local students

This May, the program awarded the first forgivable loan to Clinton High School senior Woodlyne Pierre. Pierre said she was debating between the decision to be a nurse or a teacher. Pierre’s father was a teacher, so it was always a career she considered.

Hearing about Dark Horse Fellows seemed like the perfect opportunity to discover whether she enjoyed teaching. 

“I saw something about teaching and gave it a thought,” Pierre said. “I gave it a try because I was like, ‘Okay, let’s see if this is something you’d like to do or not.’”

Originally from Haiti, Pierre’s family moved to Clinton when she was in middle school, and she now considers it home. Becoming a Dark Horse Fellow would also allow her to return back to Sampson County and teach.

Woodlyne Pierre (center) works with her mentor teacher, Anna Parker, at Sunset Avenue Elementary School. Courtesy of Vevlyn Lowe

Anna Parker, an ESL teacher at Sunset Avenue Elementary School, works as a mentor for the Dark Horse Fellows program. Pierre started in Parker’s classroom as a student herself. Parker said seeing students’ like Pierre’s growth is exciting.

“She definitely provides different perspectives that we need to see more of in education,” Parker said. “It’s almost scary how genuine her passion for education is.”

As the first recipient of the Dark Horse Fellows forgivable loan, Pierre plans to attend Fayetteville State University this fall. After graduation, she’ll be the first Dark Horse Fellow to return to the classroom in Clinton City Schools.  

Building lasting relationships

For Lowe, the program needed to be designed to set students up for success. Mainly, she said, by also fostering relationships between students. 

“They’re creating bonds, not with just the students, but with the other students in the Dark Horse Fellows Program, who hopefully will also come back and be at Clinton City Schools,” Lowe said.

Once selected for the program, Dark Horse Fellows will spend not only a lot of time with their mentor teachers and students but also with their classmates. 

Students in the program get firsthand experience in teaching, even sometimes teaching and tutoring students themselves. Hailey Strickland is a junior in the program who interns with a middle school math teacher. For Strickland, the program allows her to confirm her love for teaching. 

“I like when the students are actually engaged in their work,” Strickland said. “One time I had the completely wrong answer for a problem, and they sat there and told me how they worked it out.”

Hailey Strickland, a junior in the program, works with a 6th grader during her mentorship. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

For mentor teachers, the Dark Horse Fellow program serves as a reminder of the importance of teaching. 

“I know what it’s like to be a new teacher, and how exciting it could be and how scary it can be at the same time,” Parker said. “I can help them see an accurate depiction of what it’s like.”

Lowe said it is these relationships with mentor teachers that help students adjust to the classroom and get acclimated to teaching. Most importantly, Lowe said these teachers can provide positive experiences and outlooks on teaching. 

“We need teachers who are cheerleaders for the profession,” Lowe said. “We need teachers to say ‘Yes, you need to teach!’”

Creating a meaningful experience

In addition to the classroom experience, students in the program are also required to take two education courses at Sampson Community College. Students are eligible to take more courses if they choose. 

Dr. Susan Baxter, division chair of education at Sampson Community College, said the program is good for education in the county.

“This is such a great opportunity for our community because they are encouraged and mentored to come back home with that teaching degree and feedback into our pipeline here in Sampson County,” Baxter said. “It really is a great avenue just to enhance education overall for our entire county.

Students in the program can participate in paid internships during the summer, which typically allows them to be paired with an additional mentor teacher. 

“That way, they have more exposure to different styles of teaching and we’re also going to put them in a different grade level and subject area,” Lowe said. “They’re strategically paired with them.” 

By the time they complete the program, students end up going through two summer internships, and at least two teacher education courses, which are dual credit courses. In addition, students will work with at least two different mentor teachers. This will allow them to experience different teaching styles and gain exposure to teaching different grade levels.

Strickland explains a math problem to a student during her internship at Samspon Middle School. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

“It was amazing to see that they can do this,” Lowe said. “A lot of them doubted themselves when they were going into their summer internships.” 

This summer, Lowe will take Dark Horse Fellows students to Ocracoke Island, where they will visit the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching and hear from CFNC representatives. In preparation for the trip, Lowe tasked Dark Horse Fellows with planning the trip — practice for planning field trips in the future. Students will go through the entire process of planning the trip, getting it approved by the school board, and setting a budget. 

Planning for the future

Lowe thinks it’s too soon to predict how the Dark Horse Fellows program will impact Clinton City Schools, but she anticipates there will a positive outcome. 

“I look forward to seeing how the Dark Horse Fellows program grows over the next few years,” Lowe said. “I do expect the program to get bigger, and as we get bigger, we need more financial support.”

Right now, the program takes eight students each year — ideally, four juniors and four seniors. As the program grows, Lowe hopes to accept any interested student into the program.

“It’s exciting to see a program that was once a dream, turn to reality,” Lowe said. 

Cheyenne McNeill

Cheyenne McNeill is a regional reporter for EdNC.