Groomed for teaching at age 14

UNITED STATES. Bonnie Stacy could never have afforded higher education, nor had she ever considered becoming a teacher. Now she is preparing for both through a scheme that is also providing an innovative solution to a recruitment crisis in Florida's disadvantaged schools.

Concerned that half the teachers in its inner-city schools quit within three years of joining, Broward county school district has gone talent-spotting in its own urban classrooms, singling out pupils to train for the profession from the age of 14.

Students are groomed in teaching techniques and classroom theory, pairing off with teacher mentors and practising their new-found skills on elementary pupils. After high school, they move on to community college and university for a four-year, all-expenses-paid teaching degree course with a job guaranteed at the end of it - possibly even back at their own school.

"Universities are not producing enough teachers and the result is that we have a crisis in education," said Broward county school board member Dr Bob Parks, who helped pioneer the Urban Teacher Academy Project. "What better way to confront the teacher shortage than to grow our own?"

At middle school, Bonnie was lucky if her schoolwork earned her C or D grades. Now in her final year at Stranahan high in Fort Lauderdale, which has a graduation rate of just 57 per cent, the 18-year-old is consistently achieving As and Bs.

"Joining UTAP was the best thing that ever happened to me. It's given me a direction, a passion in life, something to work at and a reason to improve myself," she said.

With more than 260,000 students, Broward is America's fifth-largest school system and needs to recruit 13,000 teachers over the next decade. UTAP is expected to yield 150 a year to work in some of Broward's 101 urban schools.

Because they from an inner-city background, UTAP trainees are considered better equipped to handle the challenges of teaching in poor urban schools and immune to the "culture shock" that is blamed for high turnover among other recruits.

"We want them to be quality teachers in the kind of schools they went to themselves, the harder-to-staff schools, where they can relate to the children and the children can relate to them," said UTAP co-ordinator Sara Rogers.

The student teachers undergo tuition three times a week, focusing on skills such as how to draw up a lesson plan and how to teach children to read.

Once a month, they head to local elementary schools to teach a 30-minute lesson.

Stranahan high student Vanessa Dike, 16, does her teaching practice at North Fork elementary in Broward's poorest postal district in Fort Lauderdale.

"When I first heard about this programme, I thought, 'I don't want to be a teacher'. Now I see what an awesome profession it is," she said. "We can say to pupils, 'I know what it's like for you, I've been there myself'. We can make a difference."

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