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Teaching college enrollment has plummeted. The NC Teaching Fellows program is fueling limited growth.

Liz Schlemmer
Alliyah Rich is a recent graduate of NC State's College of Education and an NC Teaching Fellow who will be employed as a middle school special education teacher in the fall.

Enrollment at public teaching colleges in North Carolina dropped over the past decade. The NC Teaching Fellows loan-forgiveness program once attracted education majors to colleges across the state. After the General Assembly ended and then resurrected the program, some participating schools are now seeing a rebound.

Alliyah Rich has always wanted to be a teacher, and she has proof, in an art project from 2nd grade that her mom put on display at her recent college graduation party.

Courtesy of Alliyah Rich
At her graduation party, Alliyah Rich displayed an art project from second grade that said she wanted to be either a teacher or a dolphin trainer when she grew up.

“It's like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And it literally says a teacher or a dolphin trainer. It's the only thing I've ever seen myself doing,” Rich said.

More than 20 years later, Rich says she still wants to spend her career in education. She's excited to be a middle school special education teacher next school year.

“This past couple weeks, I've been finding all these things on TikTok, and Pinterest for all these different strategies and ways to help students,” Rich said.

Social media has also left her feeling a little nervous.

“You see all the TikToks, and all the things on social media where all these teachers are leaving,” Rich said. “That's been really overwhelming for me."

Her former N.C. State classmate Kristen Parrish says this environment has made her only more resolved in her decision to be a math teacher.

“It almost motivates me a little bit,” Parrish said. “Like, yes, a lot of teachers are leaving, but I'm going to stay.”

Parrish’s former roommate London Dement, who is also about to become a high school math teacher, agrees.

“We all have our educational journeys and why we chose it," Dement said. "But we're all like, so ready to do this.”

These women are exactly the kind of new teachers schools are looking for — passionate educators with bachelor’s degrees, student teaching experience, and training in math, science or special education. But they are becoming more rare.

Education majors fell since the recession, classroom vacancies are now soaring

Schools tend to have more vacancies in math, science and special education. That means hundreds of open classroom positions go unfilled each year across the state. That’s been true for years.

As some school districts are currently reporting higher than average teacher turnover, the issue is becoming acute. Across the state, there were more than 1,100 vacancies in STEM or special education classrooms in the 2020-2021 school year that were not filled with a certified teacher.

Jason deBruyn

Local schools often rely on regional colleges for new teachers. But this past school year, UNC-Wilmington had zero students pursuing math or science in its undergraduate teaching program.

“We get calls from places all over the state...Is Watson graduating a person with this certification area? That’s a routine thing that happens,” said Van Dempsey, the dean of UNC-Wilmington's Watson College of Education.

Jason deBruyn

Data from the UNC System show the decline in education majors started at least 10 years ago, dropping by the hundreds year after year. The UNC System was not able to provide comparable data before 2010, but UNC-Wilmington and N.C. State report their education program enrollments were more stable before then.

Dempsey says the enrollment at the Watson College of Education at UNC-Wilmington is actually now beginning to tick back up by a few dozen students.

“The decline was steep,” Dempsey said. “The sort of trend moving in a different direction, it would take 100 years at that level to account for the loss.”

That trend translates to fewer teachers in North Carolina classrooms today who have a degree in education. More than 1,800 teachers in North Carolina classrooms last school year were not fully certified - they're on what's called an emergency license while they complete state requirements for licensing.

Jason DeBruyn

Dempsey says he often fields questions about whether colleges of education are doing enough to recruit. He says his college’s staff are being more proactive than ever before, but there are factors outside their control — the economy, politics and state policies.

“Teaching, like every other profession, exists in a market,” Dempsey said. “If the market forces are not incentivizing and driving people into the market, you've got a problem. And you've got an even bigger problem if those forces are driving them away.”

He points to political battles and culture wars centered on schools.

“This is the most toxic, abusive, corrosive, hostile exploitative time for public education, particularly K-12 education,” Dempsey said.

Veteran North Carolina teachers received many benefits in their careers that are no longer available to new teachers — master’s degree pay, consistent longevity pay and health benefits through retirement. The General Assembly ended or scaled back those benefits after the "Great Recession," blaming budget constraints.

Meanwhile, statewide raises to the teacher salary schedule, like the average 4.2% raise passed in the most recent state budget, have been sporadic.

As the upcoming co-chair of the Department of Public Instruction’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC), Dempsey is concerned about state policies that affect teacher compensation and recruitment.

“The state has not been structurally strategic about teacher compensation,” Dempsey said. “Problem is you can't build a profession around that. It also sends a signal. It's an unpredictable salary market.”

Dempsey says bringing back previously effective policies and increasing pay are obvious solutions to the school staffing crisis.

“Teaching is rocket science, figuring out how to get more of them and support them is not,” Dempsey said.

NC Teaching Fellows loan forgiveness program is fueling growth at some colleges of education

These are the 17 campuses that previously hosted NC Teaching Fellows before the General Assembly cut the program from the state budget in 2017.
Public School Forum of North Carolina
These are the 17 campuses that previously hosted NC Teaching Fellows before the General Assembly cut the program from the state budget in 2017.

One policy that is working well for some universities is the NC Teaching Fellows program. The state-funded program forgives teachers’ student loans up to $8,200 per year of tuition for each year they work in a North Carolina public school. If they teach in a high-need school, they pay it back faster.

Paola Sztajn is dean of N.C. State’s College of Education, which currently has the largest class of NC Teaching Fellows in the state. She credits the program with the college’s recent growth.

“We actually welcomed our largest class in a decade this fall,” Sztajn said. “For us, it was a game changer to have the Teaching Fellows back.”

NC Teaching Fellows used to be available at 17 teaching colleges in North Carolina. Then, the new Republican majority in the General Assembly cut it from the state budget following the 2009 recession. No new Teaching Fellows were recruited since 2010. After that, education majors in North Carolina dropped.

The General Assembly brought NC Teaching Fellows back on a smaller scale in 2017. Now students have to major in specific fields, like math and special education. Since 2017, it has been available at five universities, including N.C. State, but not UNC-Wilmington and many other universities with historically large education programs. Beginning in 2022, it will be available at Fayetteville State and North Carolina A&T State Universities and UNC-Pembroke.

Sztajn said she hopes other teaching colleges across the state will also see their enrollment grow like N.C. State’s College of Education has.

“I'm hoping we are just a little ahead of the curve, and other colleges will soon rebound too, but that's to be seen,” Sztajn said.

UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Charlotte are also participants in the NC Teaching Fellows program. UNC-Chapel Hill has seen some limited growth in enrollment for education majors, but UNC-Charlotte has not.

Education majors say they’re still in it for the kids

Courtesy of Kristen Parrish
Friends and former roommates Kristen Parrish (L) and London Dement (R) will both be high school math teachers serving in North Carolina public schools in the fall. They are NC Teaching Fellows.

All three recent N.C. State students, Alliyah Rich, Kristen Parrish and London Dement, are graduates of the NC Teaching Fellows program.

When asked what makes them excited about a career in education, they all shared the same sentiment — it’s the kids.

“Kids just want to feel like they have someone there for them,” Rich said.

Even after student teachers in the pandemic, in what many teachers have described as their hardest year, these upcoming teachers have optimism.

“Just to see the relationships that we built just in a few months and with these teenagers that sometimes they act like … they're too cool for you,” Dement said. “Especially the last day, I think just seeing how they reacted that we were leaving, it makes it all worth it.”

“I think that our students need a constant,” Parrish said. “I want to be that constant that they can count on and come to me always. It motivates me to keep pushing forward despite the challenges.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org