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Perspective | It takes a state: Nurturing learners in classrooms, schools, and communities

It takes a whole village to raise a child.

This ubiquitous proverb is true.

Our children learn and grow in classrooms and in schools, neighborhoods, and communities. The latter offer children different social and economic realities. These realties are structurally inequitable, and impact students’ academic achievement and well-being — their physical, social, emotional, and behavioral health. The results: major and persistent gaps in school outcomes for students, especially those most underserved and underprivileged across North Carolina.

To close these gaps, we need highly qualified and diverse teachers and school leaders. We also need school counselors, psychologists, and nurses, social workers, and mental health and family service professionals. These professionals provide wraparound services and create safety care networks to nurture students across classrooms, schools, families, and communities.

We need to care for the whole child — their learning and their well-being. We currently shortchange our children on both accounts.

North Carolina continues to experience severe shortages in highly qualified teachers, especially those serving in high-need schools. University education preparation programs (EPPs) have struggled for years with decreased funding and declining student demand for our programs. At UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, from 2008 to 2015, our undergraduate elementary education and Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program enrollments dropped by about 60% and 80%, respectively. These declines mirrored those in EPPs across our state and the nation.

North Carolina EPPs adapted to these struggles with innovations and difficult decisions. In our case, we were forced to sunset the four-year undergraduate elementary teacher education program in 2014 and focus our resources on the one-year MAT program. We continue to offer undergraduate licensure in secondary science, mathematics, and music education in collaboration with our College of Arts & Sciences.

North Carolina also suffers severe shortages in professionals providing wraparound services in our schools and communities.

Recent student-to-school-counselor and student-to-school-psychologist ratios in our state were 367-to-1 and 1,800-to-1 compared to the recommended ratios of 250-to-1 and 500-to-1. The situation is worse with social workers, where North Carolina’s ratio is 1 for every 2,000 students compared to the recommended ratio of 1 for every 250 children.

We must do better.

At the UNC School of Education, we strive to educate highly effective educators to meet the needs of the whole child — teachers, counselors, principals, and school psychologists. We are working to meet North Carolina’s most pressing needs.

We have made major progress in increasing enrollments in our undergraduate and graduate educator preparation programs. For instance, compared to seven students in our MAT cohort of 2015, we anticipate enrolling 80 students this fall. This is more than a tenfold increase in five years. We are also experiencing a resurgence in school leadership enrollments through innovative program designs and delivery.

We invested in building the pipeline for professionals interested in wraparound careers. In 2016, we launched a new undergraduate major in Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS). This pre-professional program is explicitly designed for undergraduate students interested in working with children and families in schools and communities, but not necessarily as classroom teachers.

HDFS students may choose to pursue additional work to become licensed as classroom teachers, including in our own MAT program. Most, however, pursue graduate work toward becoming social workers, school counselors or psychologists, or speech and hearing therapists among other careers in service of children and families. The program has grown rapidly in the last five years.

We are not alone. Schools and colleges of education across North Carolina are adapting, innovating and doing their part. Yet, we need statewide efforts.

We must invest in the future of our children, in their learning and their well-being.

We must treat and compensate teachers as deserving professionals — a key to addressing the shortage of teachers. We must invest in more wraparound service professionals. We must provide schools with the resources needed to ensure student success.

If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it will take the whole state to educate our children.

This is our collective responsibility. We must deliver.

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill. He serves as a member of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.