Not one student.
Brooks Smith, the director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education for the Columbia County School District, saw that problem as an opportunity to invest in future educators of Columbia County.
“A lot of times, school districts are one of the largest employers in a community,” Smith said. “School districts are always trying to help make sure there are enough engineers or enough health care career-focused graduates or graduates for every other sector other than education. Generally, we have just over 4,000 employees in the Columbia County School District, so we are a huge employer.”
But several years ago, Columbia County wasn’t fully promoting students’ opportunities for a future career in teaching, he said.
“We hire as many as 250 teachers every school year,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of people, so we began thinking about how we are going to maintain that pipeline of highly qualified applicants. The teacher shortage is a national problem. It is not just a problem here in the state of Georgia. It’s everywhere, so we needed to be proactive.”
“About seven years ago, when I was the associate dean here at Augusta University and was over educator preparation, accreditation and partnerships, I learned about these high school pathways,” Wilson said. “Across the state of Georgia, there are lots of pathways, and what the state was trying to do is create this college career readiness infrastructure where students were exploring different pathways. And once they got to high school, they could take about three of these career pathway courses while they were in school.”
Several years ago, Columbia County offered only an early childhood education pathway, which basically was geared toward students wanting to become daycare teachers. Wilson realized the district needed a broader teaching pathway.
“I started working with the superintendent, associate superintendents and some of the principals around the possibility of creating a Teaching as a Profession, or TAP, pathway,” she said. “Now, Teaching as a Profession pathway is in all five high schools in Columbia County. So, what that allows us to do is to build relationships with those high school students while they are in these pathways. It creates a seamless bridge, hopefully from their high school to our university and then back to them teaching in Columbia County.”
By the 2019-20 school year, Columbia County had a total of 59 students from one high school in the Teaching as a Profession pathway.
This school year, Columbia County has 398 students in the TAP pathway from all five high schools, Smith said.
“It has been incredible,” Smith said. “Five years ago, only one of our schools had the teaching pathway, and that was Lakeside High School. We now have it in all five high schools with right at 400 students. So, we have already grown the enrollment by almost 10 times.”
The district is investing in the future of the entire community through Columbia County’s TAP pathway, Wilson said.
“One of the things that we found is that our education students at Augusta University tend to stay and work close to where they grow up,” she said. “Even teachers nationally, 60% of them teach within a 20-mile radius of where they went to high school. So, looking at those statistics, we realized that we are really creating the job market for our area. We are literally growing our own future educators.”
TAP Talks comes to Columbia County
In order to further promote the Teaching as a Profession pathway, the Columbia County School District is hosting a TAP Talks summit on Wednesday, March 29, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Columbia County Performing Arts Center. Transportation for students in Columbia County who are involved or interested in the pathway will be provided.
“At this event, we are utilizing our former and current Columbia County Teachers of the Year to help inspire our TAP students to continue their journey into the profession,” Smith said. “We already have 250 of our TAP students registered for this event.”
Representatives from Augusta University will be at TAP Talks to assist students with leveraging 12 possible dual enrollment credits to this pathway, Wilson said.
“In fact, this summer we have hired one of the Columbia County teachers who teaches in one of these pathways,” Wilson said. “The teacher, Alex Williamson, actually teaches at Lakeside High School. However, she will be teaching one of our college education classes this summer at Grovetown High School, but the summer course is open to students in all five Columbia County high schools.”
“Therefore, any student in Columbia County who wants to take this course is welcome to come, as long as they can be dual enrolled, so they just have to meet our admission standards for dual enrollment,” she added. “And the plan is that we will be offering these kinds of courses every single summer from now on, if it is successful. We are excited about these summer courses because it is going to save students a lot of time and money.”
By bringing the college courses directly to Columbia County schools, Augusta University can reach potential teachers more quickly and get them engaged in their future college careers, Wilson said.
“Columbia County really wanted these courses on their campuses because it becomes an access issue,” Wilson said. “Let’s face it, Columbia County is down the road a bit from our campus. And, first of all, a student has to have a car. Next, they have to have the money to put gas in that car. Safety can also be an issue as these dual enrolled students must drive to and from their homes to our campus.”
It simply made more sense to offer the Augusta University instructors to the Columbia County high schools, Wilson said.
“We really just want to make sure that we allow all students to have opportunities that others may have been denied before because they didn’t have access to transportation,” Wilson said. “Therefore, starting in the fall, we will offer at least one college class in all five of the Columbia County high schools, and we are hoping that will grow. I sincerely believe it is going to take off because it is a win for the students. It is saving them time and money, and it really gives them a launching pad to get into their careers faster, which is wonderful for everyone.”
High demand for special education teachers
The TAP pathway also includes a unique opportunity for high school students to take the college course SPED 3002: Teaching Students with Disabilities in the Inclusive Classroom, Smith said.
“Augusta University is the only university in the University System of Georgia that has this in Georgia Futures as a dual enrollment course for high school students,” Smith said. “The course is Teaching Students with Disabilities in the Inclusive Classroom, and Special Ed 3002 is the college course. So, our plan is to offer that asynchronously this fall for any of our students from all five high schools in Columbia County that want to take that as a dual enrollment course with Augusta University.”
There is a tremendous need for more special education teachers throughout the district, Smith said.
“Fortunately, our special education director, Dr. Jennifer Zills, is actually an adjunct instructor for Augusta University. She is going to be teaching this course asynchronously this fall,” Smith said. “For all of the high school students that take and pass the Special Ed 3002 dual enrollment course with Augusta University, then during the spring semester we are going to place them in a special education practicum for the whole semester. It will be a high school credit, work-based learning experience, where they will rotate through different types of special ed scenarios.”
This will allow students to get first-hand experience working with special education programs that could ignite their passion for the field, Smith said.
“My hope is that some of those students who may not have been considering becoming a special ed teacher will, through this practicum, have a light that may come on, and they say, ‘Oh wow, this is amazing. This is what I want to do,’” Smith said. “They may find their passion through that work-based learning practicum experience with our special ed teachers.”
The school district’s human resources department will be on hand at TAP Talks on March 29 to provide information about signing bonuses for Columbia County graduates who come back to teach in the district, Smith said.
“We will also be providing five $1,000 scholarships at this year’s Future Educator Signing event for our high school seniors that will be held at our Rookie of the Year celebration on May 17 at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion,” Smith said. “So, one student from each of our five high schools will have the opportunity to be awarded a $1,000 scholarship, if they plan to pursue a degree to become a teacher. These scholarship applications will be provided at this TAP Talks event.”
Connections in the teaching community
Smith said it is important to combine the Future Educator Signing event with the Rookie of the Year celebration because it gives high school seniors who want to become a teacher one day a chance to connect with rookie teachers.
“Chances are, you are not talking about a lot of age difference,” Smith said. “Generally, you are talking about probably an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old. So, these seniors in high school are able to actually see themselves in the not-too-distant future by talking and connecting with our first-year teachers. That is an effort to hopefully keep these young people motivated to stay the course and pursue this as a career.”
As part of the Future Educator Signing event, high school seniors can sign a card that has been endorsed by Smith that states they have the intention of pursuing a degree in education and returning to teach in Columbia County.
“They come up and they sign a card that I have signed and they are given a journal. We encourage them to journal their experiences as they go through their next four years at a college,” Smith said. “We encourage them to keep that card because I always refer to it as Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. If they keep this card and they do complete their degree and they do choose to interview with us, that card guarantees them an interview within the Columbia County School District.”
“While it doesn’t guarantee them the job, it does guarantee them an interview,” he added. “That card lets them cut in line and get that interview.”
Wilson said Columbia County is embracing these future teachers in such a positive way that she is confident the TAP pathway will continue to grow each year.
“I believe that this is going to be a difference maker,” Wilson said. “The partnership that we have with Columbia County and these future teachers will positively impact the entire community.”