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How Elizabeth City-Pasquotank is trying to churn out effective teachers

Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools is gearing up for an experiment with Elizabeth City State University to transform the way teachers are trained and placed into the district’s schools.

It’s a system that will essentially create a continuum of instruction between the university’s college of education and the school system, putting students into an intensive residency (think student teaching or clinical practice) experience and facilitating feedback between the university and the school. The goal is to make sure students are getting the best, most up-to-date, and relevant education they can in the hopes of making them more effective when they enter the classroom.

“The big picture is we’re in northeastern North Carolina,” said Catherine Edmonds, superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. “We’re all pulling on the same talent here … so we were looking for a way to grow our own.”

The idea actually started when Edmonds was still working in Bertie County. The district there had applied for the Advanced Teaching Roles Grant pilot program, which can provide teacher leaders with higher pay while putting them in leadership positions and getting them more professional development.

When Bertie applied for the grant in 2018, it launched a partnership with Elizabeth City State University and worked with the National Center for Teacher Residencies on the partnership to help establish a residency program with the university.

When Edmonds came to Elizabeth City, she took her experience with that project and decided to do something similar with her new school system.

The district in Elizabeth City isn’t part of the Advanced Teaching Roles pilot, but the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR) was able to find a partner that would pay for the first year of a partnership between the school district and Elizabeth City State University. So, the two partners have been working with NCTR to get their new program up and running.

On March 18, members of the district and the university will meet to begin developing curriculum and planning to recruit the first cohort. The plan is for the first cohort of students to start in the fall of 2020.

This is how it will work.

Currently, undergraduates studying education at the university spend about 30 to 60 hours of the fall semester of their senior year in a classroom observing. Then, in the spring semester, they are student teaching in a classroom 100% of the time.

With the new program, the district and university are talking about having students in that fall semester potentially take classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and spend the other days of the week in the same classroom all day. Then, in the spring semester, they would be teaching in the same classroom that they spent the fall semester in. This means residents will spend an entire year teaching.

Additionally, the district will pair each resident with a trained Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Schools mentor.

“[They] would actually take our residents under their wing to make sure that they have support while they’re in our schools,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds hopes it gives the student teachers a glimpse of how the school system likes to do things as well as gives them access to professional development opportunities during the summer.

The district and university are also talking about having a teacher cadet program in high schools that would help build a pipeline of interested students to go to Elizabeth City State University.

The idea here is to create a pipeline of well-prepared, day-one-ready teachers for the local school system. Students would be identified in high school, attend Elizabeth City State University to learn, and then, while still at the university, go into the school system for student teaching. Based on how the student is doing and what they’re doing, the university can adjust their instruction to help students respond to what work on the ground is actually like.

Communication between the university and the school system will ensure that both sides know how well the student is doing, what support they need, and what they need to learn. Because of this communication, as a student leaves the university and actually begins work as a full-fledged teacher, the school district will be well-positioned to provide continuing support because school staff will know what kind of support the teachers need.

“What we are seeing is: we are working together in training students,” said Sheila Williams, chair of the Department of Education at Elizabeth City State University. “The theory over here, and then they’re going into practice with a mentor.

“This will be continuous. It’s not as if we come together one or two times per year … this is ongoing. As we look at our programs, we look at our curriculum, we look at what needs to be changed to benefits our students, this gives us the opportunity to do it ongoing.”

This is all essential, because what the district and university really want to do is make sure that student teachers actually end up teaching in the local school district. Elizabeth City-Pasquotank faces a problem that many districts around the state face: having teachers poached by other districts that can offer more money.

“What we’re finding … is that surrounding districts may have a teacher supplement higher than we offer. So if Currituck loses someone, they recruit our teachers,” Edmonds said. “So we could potentially have this revolving door — OK, we have teachers in the northeast and just cycling through the same teachers, so the district with the largest supplement at the time, is more attractive to teachers.”

And then, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank turns around and does the same thing: recruiting teachers from other districts. Edmonds said that at one point, a superintendent of another district asked her to please stop taking teachers. She answered that someone was taking hers, and they needed to come from somewhere.

We feel like this program will be a huge help for us … because maybe when these other districts come calling, teachers will want to stay with us,” Edmonds said. “We want to train teachers well enough that they can leave us, but to support them so they don’t.”

This continuum of education, constant communication between a district and a university, and continued support for student teachers and beginning teachers is all essential in the current education world, according to Amy Jo Spencer, chief academic officer of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools.

“Historically, ECSU was a teaching college, so when you look at that, they taught education in the traditional way,” she said. “The world outside of us is ever changing now. This is a unique experience in that we’re adapting the environment that is out there now.” 

Edmonds said the district is already talking about what they want teachers to know and be able to do when they come from the university. And when teachers come back to the university and report on how things are going in the district, that can be an opportunity for growth, too, Edmonds said.

“We may think we’re doing a wonderful job. But the information they’re getting from their graduates will inform our work,” she said.

The hope is that all of this will create a better pipeline for teachers in the district. Part of accomplishing that is going to be better preparing students to want to become teachers.

Williams said it’s difficult to find students who are interested in becoming teachers. The university has better luck with people who are coming from other professions and want to transfer into teaching. They know what they want. But taking young students who aren’t sure what they want to do with their life: that’s difficult.

With the cadet program, the hope is that they can identify students who are good at specific subjects. Students who maybe even help teachers instruct other students who are falling behind. Those students could be recruited into a teacher cadet program that gets them into the university.

“Once you do that for a couple of years, you’re going to have an influx of students who are interested in teaching,” Williams said.

They want to attract those students who are good at maybe math or science and would be good at teaching, but have their minds set on another profession.

Edmonds said that some actions in the state aren’t helping with teacher recruitment either — things like the elimination of master’s pay and the fact that the NC Teaching Fellows program doesn’t really reach her district.

“It does not come to this side of the state, which is baffling because the large majority of schools identified as low performing are in the northeastern part of the state,” she said.

And those dollars could go further at ECSU, because it is one of three universities in the state that has in-state tuition of $500 per semester.

With the exception of the money being used to start up the project, the actual implementation of this program will be done within the current resources of the district and university. Edmonds said that will make it sustainable and, if successful, scalable to other areas around the state.

And, Edmonds said, she hopes that a program like this can help schools around the state meet the tenets of the long-running Leandro court case. One of the tenets of Leandro and the recent consent order in the case is the need for effective teachers in every classroom.

“This will definitely help us hit that piece of having an effective teacher in every classroom,” she said. “We have schools that have seen some struggles, and sometimes it’s very difficult to get teachers to go into some of our schools that have the challenges that need those effective teachers.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.