Prince William Co. gets $350K grant to help recruit, retain aspiring teachers

Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade said the new funding will allow the county to pay for up to 25 apprentices. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

After nine years of working as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom, Imani Gray decided it was time to work toward becoming a teacher herself.

It’s something she always knew she wanted to pursue, but the cost of getting a degree and licensing proved to be a barrier. But then she learned more about a Prince William County partnership with the Virginia Commonwealth University that covers tuition and pays educators to work in a classroom while they finish their coursework. It also pairs aspiring teachers with mentors to help them with day-to-day tasks.

Anticipating that many aspiring teachers face similar barriers to becoming educators, Virginia’s Department of Education announced over $1.5 million in “Grow Your Own” grants, created to fund apprenticeship programs that help school divisions recruit and retain teachers.

Prince William County, the state’s second-largest school division, received $350,000 from the state to help pay for its partnership with VCU. The funding, Superintendent LaTanya McDade said, will allow the county to pay for up to 25 apprentices.

“We’re losing a whole generation of future teachers by not thinking differently,” State Superintendent Lisa Coons said Wednesday, after announcing the grant funding at Leesylvania Elementary School in Woodbridge. “This program and the grant funding allow a low-cost [or] no-cost way to become a teacher, and be honored while doing that.”

In Prince William County, the partnership with VCU offers undergraduates who already have an associate degree the chance to get their bachelor’s degree paid for while they work in a county school. They get paid to work in the school division during the week, according to Shelby Elliott, admin coordinator for human resources with the school district.

The students train with a teacher-mentor during the two years of the program, and once they’re finished, they get jobs in county schools that are hard to staff, Elliott said. As part of the program, the teachers stay with Prince William County schools for three years after they’re finished.

The grant, Elliott said, is helping fund the program for the 18 apprentices that started the program in January. The school division is also recruiting a new cohort of aspiring teachers to start the program in May.

“This is how every teacher should be trained,” Elliott said. “It serves as a recruitment and a retention [tool]. But, for me, the most important thing is that we’re putting quality educators in front of our students.”

Since starting the program, Gray, who works at Leesylvania, has been involved in team meetings and crafting lesson plans, among other things. It’s a helpful partnership in the midst of a national teacher shortage.

“It’s very important that the students see that there is someone who is caring about them enough to come to work every day to teach them,” Gray said.

Alondra Sorto, another teaching resident at Leesylvania, used to be a substitute. She’s at the school four days each week, working with students one-on-one and supporting them in small group settings.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Sorto said.

Her mentor, third grade teacher Monica Clabeaux, said she was inspired to work with future educators because of the influence her mentors had on her.

“This is really beneficial, especially for our need of teachers right now, and strong teachers in the classroom,” Clabeaux said. “This program would build stronger teachers, because they will have two years of experience under their belt before they accept a position.”

Coons, the state superintendent, said initiatives such as the one in Prince William modernize the approach to recruiting teachers.

“We’re seeing a national teacher shortage, but there are ways that we are really impacting that and doing things differently that will sustain us for the future,” Coons said.

Babur Lateef, chairman of Prince William County’s school board, said Coons’ visit “represents a significant step in advancing our mission to provide high-quality education for all students.”

Other school districts, including Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Essex, Henrico, Petersburg City, Prince George County, Surry County, and Waynesboro Public Schools, are also receiving some of the grant funding.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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