By Gary Funk, RSC Director
I recently had a conversation with RSC board member Larry Lee, the well known Alabama writer and public schools advocate. We were discussing different projects, and I asked Larry, “How do you think the The University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps is doing?”
“Well, Gary," and he paused, "I’d have to say they are settin’ the woods on fire.”
And are they!
The Black Belt Teacher Corps (BBTC) has become a centerpiece of The University of West Alabama’s comprehensive effort to strengthen rural schools and communities in their region. Funded with a state appropriation, the BBTC is a scholarship program created to address teacher shortages in the Black Belt region. The Black Belt Teacher Corps enhances teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention to the field of education by offering tuition scholarships to the College of Education. Students commit to teaching in the Black Belt region for three years, leadership and service training, and completion of a school-based Service Project.
Launched in the fall of 2016 the BBTC has hit the ground running with a total of 14 enthusiastic new teachers placed in rural Black Belt schools. By the time these new teachers entered the classroom they had already designed and implemented place-centered service projects, received training on important rural issues, and become part of an exciting new network committed to regional advocacy. It is an eye-opening result for a project that began with a modest planning grant, and it is the perfect example of what happens when an effort is led by vision, passion, and commitment.
In addition to placing well prepared teachers in rural schools, the Black Belt Teacher Corps administrators, alums, and students are letting folks know about their good work. The emphasis on social marketing is, in some ways, every bit as important as the program itself. We all must work together to change the rural narrative, and celebrating an initiative that is dedicated to developing rural teacher-leaders is a great way to do so.
Even with the program's early success, The University of West Alabama is not taking anything for granted. The state legislature has provided $250,000 annually to support the program, and BBTC participants are letting state legislators and community leaders know tax dollars have been well spent, and that the investment has stayed in rural Alabama. A video (see below), postcards, and thank you letters have all been employed to highlight the program's successes and to remind elected officials of the importance of placing quality teachers in what are often struggling rural towns and places.
Susan Hester, Coordinator for the Black Belt Teacher Corps, spoke on the significance of the awareness effort. "As the Black Belt Teacher Corps works to expand and create opportunities for all pathways to teacher certification, it is important that we continue to share the good work we are accomplishing. We want to serve as support for our students as they prepare to become teachers, as well as to mentor our new teachers within their first years of teaching. Providing the best-prepared teachers for classrooms within the Black Belt of Alabama is our mission." Hester added, "The more we can share our successes, the more our Corps will grow. We are shaping the future of Alabama students, one teacher at a time!"
The University of West Alabama's Black Belt Teacher Corps is more than an effective vehicle for strengthening public schools in its region. The program, born from good dialogue and sound planning, is a lesson on how caring people can come together and make a difference.
We're not exactly sure what Larry would say about all that, but we guess it might be something like, "Let that rooster crow!"
We invite you to learn more about how the Rural Schools Collaborative is working with its partners to promote the rural teacher corps concept. We also want to thank The University of West Alabama for anchoring our regional Hub in the Southeast.
Hey! Talking, Alabama, here is the pride of Mount Olive in Butler County, Hank Williams, singing his 1952 classic, "Settin' the Woods on Fire."
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