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LRU keeps door open for new educators
LRU keeps door open for new educators

By John Bailey jbailey@hickoryrecord.com

This article appeared in the Hickory Daily Record on December 8, 2016 and is being re-posted compliments of the HDR.

Keeping teachers in classrooms has been a growing problem across the nation in recent years and in North Carolina particularly.

Stagnant pay scales and the loss of the state's Teaching Fellows program have become roadblocks to many local, hopeful educators. Three years ago, Lenoir-Rhyne University (LRU) created its own Teacher Scholars program to help fill this gap, and it's paid off in the number of applications.

"The state reports that it's a 30 percent drop in undergraduate education enrollment in the programs for teacher education," LRU Dean of the College of Education and Human Services Dr. Hank Weddington said. "It was the same thing here up until we started the Teaching Scholars program."

In 2011, teachers in the state were hit with a significant obstacle.

The North Carolina General Assembly voted to end the state's Teaching Fellows program. Between 1987 and 2011, up to 500 Fellows were selected annually from area high schools for the state program.

"It was a nationally renowned program where all the state institutions and some of the privates, including Lenoir-Rhyne were able to offer students basically a $26,000 scholarship to help support them in becoming teachers," Weddington said.

"That hurt us all in 2012 when it came to recruitment because there was a set group of students we knew we could bring in who were highly qualified and would make it through and become great teachers."

The overall state attrition rate of teachers leaving the profession for 2014-2015 was 14.84 percent, up from 14.12 percent in 2013-2014, according to report by the North Carolina General Assembly.

After the 2012 drop-off from the Teaching Fellows program, LRU president Wayne Powell approached Weddington about finding another incentive to draw in students still interested in becoming teachers but needed that additional financial help.

The university decided on creating and funding its own scholarship program.

Scholarships of up to $5,500 per year, for the four years of study, are available to eligible incoming freshmen, according to a LRU press release. The average LRU student eligible for this program receives approximately $18,000 per year in scholarships and grants from the institution, and there are no pay back requirements.

The Teaching Scholars program provides opportunities for students outside of the classroom, helping them gain work experience with seasoned professionals. Scholars are placed in Hickory-area school districts throughout their programs of study where they serve as tutors, small group leaders and instructional assistants. They also have the opportunity to connect with school district leaders to broaden their comprehension of education administration and challenges faced by the system.

"We do up to 25 students per year," Weddington said. "We actually had 31 last year for Teacher Scholars...that was our biggest number. We expect about the same next year, to come in hopefully another 25 to 30."

Lenoir-Rhyne worked hard to connect with all the local public school districts as well, with the superintendents nominating top students in their districts for the program, who get priority consideration for the scholarship.

"So far it's gone great," Weddington said. "We are almost at an all-time high with the level of students in teacher education programs at LR while other (universities) are still down 25 or 30 percent."

The program is already taking applications for its next group of Teacher Scholars. Priority will be given to those who apply by Jan. 10.

For more information, visit the university's website at lr.eduor call 828-328-7189.

PHOTO: Dr. Hank Weddington