One of the great joys of life is watching something go from only an idea to actuality. Which is the way I view the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama.
This seed was planted in either late 2015 or early in 2016. (Old minds have a habit of forgetting such details.)
The purpose was to “grow your own” teachers for West Alabama. Like all rural locations, teacher recruitment is a challenge in this region. Like a big challenge. But could this challenge be met to some degree by incentivizing college students studying education to pursue their careers near where they grew up?. It was an idea that had been working for a number of years in the Ozarks of Missouri with the “Ozark Teacher Corps”. Why not in Alabama’s Black Belt?
Somewhere in all my wanderings I ran into Gary Funk who ran the Ozark Community Foundation at the time and played a major role in the Missouri project. I filed this fact away in the back of my mind.
Then Jan Miller became dean of the college of education at UWA. Full of energy, she faces each day looking for opportunity. So I ran my idea by her. She was all ears. Next Gary Funk made a pilgrimage to UWA. (He is now executive director of the national Rural Schools Collaborative.) This got the ball rolling.
All we needed was funding.
Call it fate, or just good luck, but we found some money. Tommy Bice announced his retirement as state superintendent of education in early 2016. Shortly after this I was looking at the proposed Education Trust Fund budget and noticed a line item for a project Bice planned. However, since he was leaving I called Rep. Bill Poole who chairs the House Education Ways & Means committee and asked about this particular line item and told him about the Black Belt Teacher Corps idea and said we could use some of that money.
Poole is one of the genuinely good guys in the legislature. In addition, he grew up in Marengo County, in the heart of the Black Belt. He signed off on this project, as did his senate counterpart Arthur Orr of Decatur, along with Senator Bobby Singleton of Hale County. Without them, the teacher corps would have died on the vine.
The first cohort of BBTC teachers were employed for the 2018-19 school year. Today there are 15 of them in eight school systems. Five more will graduate in December.
UWA students in the program receive $5,000 scholarships for their junior and senior years. They commit to working at least three years in a Black Belt school. In addition to normal education training, BBTC fellows also receive additional training concerning project-based learning and how to be community leaders.
Susan Hester runs the program. An educator with 33 years of classroom experience, she is part-time motivator, instructional leader and a shoulder to lean on. “Any first-year teacher has moments when they need encouragement and someone to instill confidence,” says Hester. “This is all part of my job.”
In addition, UWA is now working with the Pickens County school system to offer a Teacher Cadet program. This is a collaborative effort between the system’s career tech center and UWA that offers dual credit for students interested in becoming educators. Hester is hopeful other Black Belt systems will soon do the same thing.
We save the world one life at a time. Thanks to the support of key legislators and the willingness of staff at UWA, that is what the Black Belt Teacher Corps is doing.