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New Scholarship Program Aims to Help Ease Rural Teacher Shortage

A new scholarship program at East Carolina University hopes to help rural schools address their teacher shortage by growing their own.

The North Carolina school has received a $2.28 million gift from the State Employees' Credit Union Foundation to support its Partnership East program and ensure a flow of more aspiring teachers to work in rural classrooms during the next five years.

Teacher recruitment is a challenge faced by many rural districts. Some have turned to innovative ideas such as offering housing to make it easier to live there, while others have turned to groups such as Teach for America for help.

East Carolina University's Partnership East program started in 2002 after university officials heard from the school's 38 partner school system leaders who said they needed teachers who would stay and teach in their communities, said Laura Bilbro-Berry, the program's coordinator and the assistant director of the college's Office of Teacher Education. Some of those schools had teaching assistants who wanted to be teachers but couldn't afford to quit their jobs and go to school full-time or travel to a college in the evenings, she said. The partnership was developed to address those needs, she said.

"Rural school districts in eastern North Carolina have difficulty attracting teachers who will serve their schools and stay in their communities," Bilbro-Berry said. "By offering teaching degrees close to home with distance education, individuals who live and work in rural communities can gain their degrees, and they go back and teach in those districts."

The program's students complete the first two years of an education degree at one of 20 participating community colleges in eastern and central North Carolina, and they take the final two years of classes online and part-time through ECU.

The Partnership has graduated 513 students and has 270 students currently enrolled. More than 75 percent of its program's graduates are teaching in North Carolina, and 94 percent are in eastern North Carolina

The new scholarship will go to help students during their senior year, which includes a yearlong internship. Students each will receive about $3,800 that will go to tuition and a stipend that can be used for living expenses to make up for the lost income from their regular jobs. Students will be eligible to receive scholarships starting in spring 2014.

Other colleges in states such as Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Texas have similar programs to recruit workers into rural areas. Bilbro-Berry said these models are different from other universities' partnerships because university employees are located on the community colleges' campus to assist students as they transition to the second half of the undergraduate degree.

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