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Edgecombe’s Scholar Teachers program looks forward to first cohort of teachers coming home this fall

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The first cohort of Edgecombe County’s Scholar Teachers is completing their student teaching this spring and will be in classrooms next fall as first-year teachers, the culmination of an investment more than five years in the making.

“I can’t express to you how excited we are,” said Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School. “I mean, we began with the crazy idea that creating a pathway for our students to come back and to teach in Edgecombe County would pay dividends for us, but now we’re at that point where we are about to have proof of concept.”

The Scholar Teachers program grew out of the need to address high teacher turnover in the district. From 2006 to 2018, one of every five teachers in Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS) left the district each year on average — a trend found in many rural districts.

“As we began looking at our 20% teacher turnover rate,” Bristow-Smith said, “the question emerged about what systemic changes we could make that are within our own locus of control to help develop a more qualified teacher pipeline that is uniquely prepared to meet the needs of our district.”

What emerged from those discussions was a grow-your-own teacher program based at the early college. Bristow-Smith describes it as an Edgecombe County version of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program.

Growing their own teachers

Students interested in teaching can join the Scholar Teacher program during their junior year. They take four courses designed to introduce them to the basics of teaching and complete over 200 internship hours in classrooms with mentor teachers in the district, all while taking college classes and earning an associate degree at Edgecombe Community College.

After graduating, students can apply for a $10,000 college scholarship every year for three years (because they graduate with an associate degree, they only need three years to receive their bachelor’s degree). In exchange for the scholarships, they agree to return to teach in Edgecombe County for three out of their first seven years after graduating college.

“The real goal of this program is that our scholars enter the college of education with real world experience under their belt, with their eyes wide open about what the teaching profession is like, and also with the commitment that they will come back to teach in Edgecombe County once they graduate,” Bristow-Smith said.

The Scholar Teachers model. Courtesy of Matt Bristow-Smith

Currently, there are 12 students in the program at the high school and another seven in college who will be coming back to teach soon, said Leigh Ann Webb, director of the Scholar Teacher program.

Not every student who starts the program will end up becoming a teacher, Webb said. Some start the program and realize that teaching isn’t for them. For current Scholar Teacher student Joshua Webb, that’s one of his favorite things about the program.

“If you decide you don’t like it, you can move on to something else, instead of going to college and figure out you don’t like it two years in,” he said.

Webb said he joined the program because he wants to make a difference in the world.

“What better way to do it, then teach students who are going into the world to make a difference?” he said.

Board of Education Chair Rev. Raymond Privott said the Scholar Teachers program is a win-win for the district and the students.

“These kids who grew up in the county know the county, know the school system, they benefited from it,” Privott said. “If we can entice them, if we can grow our own, and encourage them to come back by paying that tuition, then we have a direct pipeline of home grown educators.”

Leigh Ann Webb, director of the Scholar Teacher program, asks her class to reflect on their internships. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Community support

One of the biggest challenges to get this program off the ground was finding funding, Bristow-Smith said. Over the past few years, however, the program has garnered significant community support.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support from local businesses, from the corporate community, and from the philanthropic community,” Bristow-Smith said. “We’ve also gotten a tremendous amount of support from our board of education and from individuals in the community who all share one common thread, and that is they care about the quality of education in our community.”

The district created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation to handle donations for the program and is now in the process of building an endowment to provide a sustainable source of funding moving forward.

Corning Incorporated, an American multinational materials and manufacturing company, created the Edge for Tomorrow Future Teachers grant, which sends three Scholar Teachers to college for three years.

“For a county to be healthy, its residents have to be healthy, and it has to have the investment of the corporations that support it and the government that supports it,” said Dr. Millicent Ruffin, director of community affairs at Corning Incorporated’s Office of Racial Equality and Social Unity. “So what this program is doing is investing in its residents, and it really creates a synergistic relationship where the education system takes care of its residents and then they come back and take care of the residents that are coming behind them.”

This wall in Leigh Ann Webb’s classroom shows each cohort of Scholar Teachers as they move through the program. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Along with Corning, the Scholar Teachers program has received support from the Barnhill Family Foundation.

“We look at what we do as an investment, and we want to see the return,” said Bob Barnhill, chairman of the board of Barnhill Contracting Company. “I do feel that the cost-benefit of this program is as good as I’ve seen.”

Ricky and Kay Thompson, local donors who have supported the Scholar Teachers program, have four children who’ve gone through Edgecombe County Public Schools and see the value in investing in its teachers.

“When you’re part of a community, you want your school system to succeed,” said Ricky. “This is just a great way to get kids we have here in town to stay here in town.”

“I have two of my children living here,” Kay added. “One day, the very people who are going through this program may be standing up in the classroom with my little grandchildren sitting in the desk or on the carpet or in the circle.”

Giving back

The first cohort of Scholar Teachers will graduate college in May and start as first-year teachers in Edgecombe County classrooms this fall.

Ny’Asia Dickens-Jones is one of the students in the first cohort. She joined the program in 2018 to see if teaching was a career she wanted to pursue.

“The teachers I’ve had have been influential, greatly influential, so I jumped on the opportunity to be able to intern … and be with other students just to see if that would be something I want to pursue later on in life,” she said.

Ny’Asia Dickens-Jones works on a vocabulary activity with eighth grade students at Martin Millennium Academy. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Dickens-Jones is completing her student teaching at Martin Millennium Academy, a K-8 global school in downtown Tarboro. Her internship experience opened her eyes to a lot of things, she said, including what grade level she wanted to teach.

“I found myself wanting to have more of a discussion with my students,” she said. “I think deeply a lot, and I want to be able to do that with my students as well,” which made her realize middle or high school was where she wanted to be.

Dickens-Jones will graduate from Barton College in May and looks forward to returning home to teach in the fall.

“I just really want to be not only a staple in my community, but somebody that kids in later generations can look up to or somebody they can come and talk to,” she said. “I feel like I’m giving back to the community that gave so much to me, and that’s all I could ever ask for.”


To learn more about the Scholar Teachers program, read this article.

Behind the Story

Cheyenne McNeill produced the video. Molly Osborne Urquhart did the reporting and filming.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.