America's inner city schools are facing a teacher crisis. Up to one out of every 2 new teachers in many urban school districts quit by their third year in the classroom. With that kind of turnover, schools have been searching for new ways to hire and retain teachers.
But how do you recruit for a profession that's often dismissed as under-appreciated and under-paid? South Florida's Broward County thinks it may have found the answer. If it works, school officials there hope it will become a national model to help relieve the country's teacher shortage.
It seems to be working well at North Fork Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, where Jewel Johnson asks her class of 7 year olds to define the Golden Rule. At first, no one answers. Then a student named Duance speaks up.
"The golden rule is to treat people as you want to be treated," he declares. Miss Johnson nods, "Everybody hear that?" The class thunders, "YES!" and repeats the rule in unison. "That's good," their teacher says, "Give yourselves a round of applause!"
Anyone watching Jewel Johnson teach would be impressed by the rapt attention of her 24 second graders. What might not be as obvious is that Miss Johnson is herself not far out of grade school. She's just 18 years old.
Jewel Johnson is part of a first-of-its-kind program to train future teachers while they're still in their teens. Along with taking regular high school courses, once a week she's bused to a nearby elementary school to put her lesson plans into practice. And she's promised to return to teach in her hometown after she finishes college.
Program director Sara Rogers explains that there's a delayed pay-off for Jewel and her fellow teachers in training. "We offer them a debt free college education, and I don't know of anywhere else that that's occurring in this country."
The Broward County school district won a $25,000 grant to launch the program in 2001. It's now offered at 5 high schools and will eventually graduate 150 future teachers a year. The first participants are now completing their first year of college.
Some critics question the wisdom of recruiting teachers so young. But Sara Rogers says getting budding teachers into the classroom early is the best way to prepare them for the real thing down the line. She points out that most student teachers don't get a chance to lead a classroom of their own until shortly before college graduation. That doesn't give them a lot of time to adapt to the realities of classroom life.
Back at North Fork Elementary, Jewel Johnson is leading her kids in a song about self-esteem. Some students start pounding a beat on the desk. Then several boys pump their fists in the air and strut around the room as they remix the song on the fly.
Teachers who didn't grow up around hip-hop culture might have told the boys to settle down. Not Miss Johnson. She beams at her future rap stars. "That's their way of understanding it," she explains. "In their community, hip-hop is a major thing in their lives. So for them to really connect to the song, they will always remember that song [because] they remixed it into their way of understanding it."
In a darkened room with a two-way mirror, Malease Berg watches Jewel teach. The school district coordinator, who is in charge of monitoring the young woman's progress, is delighted with what she sees. "She's wonderful. She's got a great connection with the kids. You see they're rapt in their attention. She's on target. She speaks clearly. She carries herself very well. I think she's wonderful."
School officials hope that recruiting students to eventually teach in their hometown schools will eliminate the kind of culture shock that leads many beginning teachers to quit.
As word spreads about the program, Broward has begun tutoring inner city school districts elsewhere in the United States about the best way to recruit them young.