School district wins grant for ‘home-grown’ teachers

What if a school could hire teachers who already know the area? They’d know the population, they’d know the challenges, and they’d know that Sussex County winters are quiet. Most of all, they’d know they love it.

This year, the Indian River School District awarded scholarships to nine graduating seniors who have agreed to come back and teach in the IRSD after finishing college. The agreement was part of a new yearlong program called Future Educators Academy.

“This enables us to grow our own educators. … There is a teacher shortage in the nation,” explained Celeste Bunting, IRSD personnel director.

“Each of these students has been awarded a $5,000 scholarship, and they will come back and teach for us for two years upon completion,” said Bunting. “Although they’re the Class of 2018, for us, they’re the Class of 2022. These will be new teachers in your district teachers in 2022.”

“At the conclusion of their college and certification requirements, they will come back to us and interview for a job, so they’ll get preferential interviews and hiring,” as long as they have all the other requirements, said Michele Murphy, IRSD community education coordinator.

In addition to the scholarship and future job opportunity, the teenagers were given a Chromebook laptop and a year’s worth of mentoring and training.

The district aimed to build camaraderie by admitting to the program students from both Indian River and Sussex Central high schools. IRHS sent Madison Baker, Fabrea McCray, Brianna McGee, Mackenzie Webb and Samantha Whelen. SCHS sent Tyler Bunting, Morgan Burton, Luisa Cadeza Lujan and Libby Ortiz-Gamboa.

“We’re all doing different things and going different places, but we’re all coming back to the same community,” with all those different experiences, said McCray.

Increasingly, districts need teachers with more expertise and training. So this helps IRSD to fill critical staffing needs, while the district and students are already familiar with each other.

“We find that students who have been through our education system as students end up being fantastic teachers by the time they come back to us,” Murphy said. “It’s kind of hard to recruit teachers to this area. We’re targeting critical needs. … The majority of them they want to become special-needs teachers or ELL teachers … so their [skills will] come in handy.”

The students do have to fill a critical-needs area, such as special education; world languages; speech and hearing therapy; school psychologist; math, science or English for secondary schools; English Language Learning (ELL); bilingual education; or language-immersion education.

And the students would repay the scholarship if they don’t follow through.

All year, the high-schoolers got hands-on experience that many students wouldn’t get until later in college. They shadowed teachers, practiced writing lesson plans and volunteered at elementary-school family nights. They also visited elementary schools and Howard T. Ennis School, which made a big impact on the seniors who plan to be special-education certified.

The YWCA also helped them discuss college life: email etiquette, study tips, course scheduling, financial aid relationships and communicating with roommates.

“Most of them said it re-inspired their passion for what they want to do,” Murphy said.

The teenagers also learned early on if teaching isn’t really their dream job. Sometimes college students are far into their degree (and tuition payments) before actually visiting real classrooms and discovering teaching isn’t for them.

“We did try to make it real for them … let them know what’s involved in being a teacher,” Murphy said.

“We learned a lot about how different students can learn in different ways, and when we become teachers, what we can bring our classrooms so that everyone can learn and everyone can feel safe,” said Samantha Whelen, who will follow her own mother into elementary-level education.

“I wasn’t always the best student. But it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” said McCray, who wants to teach children, based on her own experience, that “no one’s perfect.”

The adult mentors noted with a laugh that the teenagers didn’t exactly love waking up for the 8 a.m. monthly meetings on Saturdays.

“[It] was kind of hard to get out of bed sometimes, but they always had big smiling faces for us. … They made something that could have been really boring [be] really interesting and really fun,” so the students were on board after the first session, Whelen said.

“Just a huge thank-you to all the women who helped out with it, because it was really an amazing experience,” said Whelen, adding that she felt much better prepared for college life. “They put in so much work, so much effort.”

“They’re wonderful women and want to see you do well, but also want to encourage you to be independent,” McCray added.

Some local college students also benefitted from the grant, serving in the district as paid interns (more in-depth than student-teaching).

To win the Delaware Department of Education grant, IRSD partnered with Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington. Both districts are splitting the $590,625 Delaware Beginning Educator Support Training grant over three years. After 2020, the IRSD hopes to find more funding to continue the project with 10 students each year.

People can learn more about the IRSD Future Educators Academy by contacting or (302) 436-1000, or or (302) 732-1522.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter