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Perspective | LIFT: Diversifying North Carolina’s teacher pipeline

Did you know that while students of color make up about half of the traditional North Carolina public school student body, 80% of teachers are white? Moreover, between 2000 and 2014 (the latest year for which data are available), the state saw an enrollment increase of 306.7% among Hispanic students.

The mandate is clear: North Carolina must diversify its teacher pipeline and build pathways into education careers for bilingual students and students of color.

One solution? Leadership Institute for Future Teachers (LIFT), the N.C. State College of Education’s evidence-based year-long program to introduce, prepare, and support academically competitive high school students of color and/or bilingual students who are interested in enhancing their leadership skills and exploring a potential career in education.

“LIFT was established to address the critical need in populating the teacher pipeline with licensed, well-trained educators, particularly students of color, males, and bilingual teachers,” said Anona Smith Williams, the college of education’s associate dean for student success and strategic community engagement and executive director of LIFT. “The increase of Spanish-speaking students in our state’s classrooms presents both an opportunity and an obligation to increase the number of Spanish-speaking people who are attracted into the field of education.”

Implemented during the 2020-2021 school year, LIFT is gaining the attention of funders across the state, including the Mebane Foundation in Mocksville. LIFT’s mission resonates with the foundation, which is focused on ensuring that all children have the opportunity to reach their highest potential in school, career, and life. In response, the foundation provided $25,000 to support this year’s program.

“NC State’s College of Education LIFT Program addresses what the Mebane Foundation believes is a critical issue in our teacher workforce, and that is a lack of teacher diversity in the classroom,” explained Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. “The best example I can give is almost 20% of our student population is now Hispanic, yet only 3% of our teacher workforce is Hispanic. Wouldn’t it be great if we could at least double that 3% to 6% over the next ten years? NC State’s LIFT Program is a giant step in the right direction to get the percentages moving in the right direction.”

Matt Friedrick, executive director of development at the college of education, agrees. “North Carolina needs more educators, and particularly educators who can identify with our increasingly diverse K-12 students across the state,” Friedrick said. “We are so proud that the college of education, with the Mebane Foundation’s support, is helping to bring new, outstanding future educators into the field.”

 “The generous support of the Mebane Foundation made it possible for us to bring our LIFT participants together this past summer and fall to participate in leadership development that will hopefully someday empower them to be creative and innovative game changers in K-12 across the state,” added Dr. Williams.

How does LIFT work?

High school teachers and counselors nominate students they believe to have the potential to become extraordinary educators. In 2020-2021, 29 rising high school seniors from across North Carolina participated — 55% were bilingual. The majority were from Tier 1 or Tier 2 counties. (The North Carolina Department of Commerce annually ranks the state’s 100 counties based on economic wellbeing and assigns each a tier designation. The 40 most distressed counties are designated as Tier 1, the next 40 as Tier 2, and the 20 least distressed as Tier 3.) One hundred percent applied and planned to attend college, and 75% still planned to become educators. This year, there are 24 students enrolled in the program. 

Up to 30 nominees are invited to take part in a five-day summer residential program followed by nine months of activities. (Note that in both 2020 and 2021, the summer program was held virtually due to COVID-19 concerns and the limited vaccine availability for teenagers.) The LIFT cohort learns about teaching and its power through a series of innovative field-based activities, interactions with educational leaders, and professional leadership development training.

Participants and their parents have opportunities during the institute to attend college prep workshops and learn about scholarship opportunities. Current college of education students co-facilitate the various sessions, coordinate exciting and creative programming, and serve as mentors and role models to the high school students. Particular emphasis is given to introducing and enhancing the participants’ competitiveness for local, statewide, and national scholarship programs.

  • Summer Program: Demystify the college environment for participants who have little, if any, knowledge of campus. Students receive intensive leadership-building, coaching, and related experiences while exploring teaching in elementary, STEM, and other content-focused areas.
  • Family Support: Orientation for parents/guardians. LIFT provides continued support throughout the participants’ senior year with bilingual support for parents and mentoring for the participants from seasoned teacher-mentors of similar backgrounds.
  • College Readiness: Interactive sessions on leadership development, SAT/ACT prep, common application essay writing, and public speaking. Participants hear from innovative education leaders, legislators, and current teaching fellows from across the state. 
  • Senior Year: Students and their parents/guardians have an opportunity for two high-impact experiences, in addition to drop-in activities. LIFT Saturday Success Academies, held in the fall and spring, include mock interviews and public speaking, meeting with the College Board, the application process for Teaching Fellows, understanding financial aid and the FAFSA form, fiscal management for first-year college students, college study skills, and continued leadership development in cultural and equity awareness. Some of this programming is offered in both English and Spanish, and some is tailored for parents/guardians.

‘I want to scream it from the rooftops’

LIFT has been life-changing for the students involved. Kayla Womble was nominated for the program’s inaugural class by Vicki Brown, her academy of business and finance teacher at Southern Lee High School in Sanford. A member of the 2020-2021 cohort and now a freshman at N.C. State majoring in education, Womble shared her experience.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences with LIFT and it helped me gain a newfound respect for the field of education. This program is what solidified my decision to become an educator, specifically at N.C. State.

LIFT also improved my confidence in my abilities. I feel that I got to identify and express many of my strengths socially while also working on and improving my weaknesses. Everything about this camp made me a more well-rounded individual, and I gained a better appreciation for teachers,” Womble said.  

Kayla Womble. Photo Courtesy of LIFT

“Initially, I was thinking about a major in either business or agriculture, but education also sparked my interest because I have always wanted to make a difference, even in just one person’s life. The idea of sculpting future leaders encapsulates every reason I want to be a teacher. I want to show students how to explore their individuality and help them utilize their capabilities to their fullest potential. Most of all, I want to help individuals (not just students) become their best selves. Without this program, I am not really sure what my major would be, but I am just about positive it would not have been education. Now, though, I cannot imagine myself pursuing any other degree. My major is elementary education with a special education licensure. My ultimate goal is to prioritize children and set them up for the same level of success to flourish on their own that LIFT has done for me.”

Womble appreciated the continued support throughout her senior year and said it helped her remain motivated. “During senior year, many people experience ‘senioritis’ and I definitely struggled with that myself but because of the mentoring and assistance with admissions and scholarship processes that LIFT provided, these effects were minimized. I also gained newfound confidence in my abilities because the mentoring and tips we received regarding the application process set me up for success and I achieved all of my goals.”

As a first-generation college student, she and her family found the family support particularly valuable. “LIFT was also very inclusive of my family and they enjoyed being given the opportunity to engage in certain sections of the program. I think it helped my parents understand my career decisions more. LIFT also definitely reassured them in my decision to go to college, because the finances really scared them, but LIFT shared all the scholarship opportunities and financial aid opportunities for educators, and my parents loved this line of communication.

“I would tell other students if they have the opportunity to engage with this program, DO IT! I truly hope LIFT is around when I have kids someday because I enjoyed it so much. I want to scream it from the rooftops and tell anyone and everyone to do it.” 

Jeanna White
Jeanna White is a writer for the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville. Ten years as a substitute teacher for students from preschool through high school has given her a unique perspective and passion for education. White graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism.