OWATONNA — With a drop in the number of students across the Midwest choosing to go into teaching, the Owatonna Public Schools are looking to develop a unique program designed to help train and recruit future staff members by expanding education course offerings at the high school.
As one of Superintendent Jeff Elstad’s goals, approved by board members at a Nov. 25 meeting, the “Grow Your Own” initiative aims to expand education coursework in the high school and support teens in pursuing a teaching degree and internship in the district through a partnership with Minnesota State University – Mankato.
The initiative — which will build on a current education class at Owatonna High School — is in the process of getting off the ground this winter, and Elstad noted it will probably be two to three years before the teaching track is fully expanded in the secondary school curriculum with two additional education classes.
“We currently offer one course at our high school as an elective and it offers our students three college credits for the class,” he explained. “What we’d like to do is expand that so we could get up to nine credits offered for our high school students in the area of education, which we hope would allow them to attend Mankato for their teaching license and make their way back here for the internship.”
Through a pre-existing relationship between the university and a number of surrounding districts, graduates of Minnesota State’s teaching program can start off their careers with year-long internships in area schools.
“In a typical teacher preparation program, candidate interns would do a semester-long student teaching internship. This goes above and beyond that, because it then takes those candidates that now successfully have their teaching license and it puts them in a classroom for a full year,” Elstad explained.
For the Owatonna Public Schools, he said the internships have meant being able to show prospective job candidates the district’s culture and hopefully entice them to apply — having already spent time in the district can also give them a leg up, if they choose to do so. Elstad added that, in many cases, interns from Minnesota State turn into full-time staff members.
District administrators also hope that expanding high school course offerings and encouraging local students to take up that path will get a more diverse group of recruits interested and able to pursue an education degree.
“We want to make sure we are giving the opportunity to students who may not see that opportunity any other way,” noted Kory Kath, high school principal. Both he and Elstad explained that being able to offer additional college credits prior to graduation could help make a post-secondary education more accessible to teens.
The superintendent added that he’d like to encourage students of color interested in education to pursue the pathway, in the hopes of diversifying the district’s workforce.
“There are far more students of color than what we have for teachers, that’s why I call it a diversity gap,” said Chris Picha, director of human resources for the district. “We’re hoping that — with this program — we can bring more diversity to our workforce that will start to help mirror our student body.”
Picha added that having teachers who are from the district can also help with staff retention.
Travelling around a five-state area doing recruiting, Picha said the universities she’s worked with have noted on average a 30% drop in student candidates wanting to go into teaching. Subject areas that tend to be hit the hardest are science, math, technical, and special education, she added.
“There were days where you used to get 300 to 500 applications,” said Picha. “Now you rarely break a hundred.”
Going forward, she is working on setting up a meeting with representatives from Minnesota State University – Mankato, as well as from all its partner districts. She is also starting on an application for a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to help fund the initiative.
According to Elstad, this would be an annual grant of up to $500,000 that would be shared across the districts in the partnership with Minnesota State. The group could reapply annually, as long as the funding continues to be authorized by the State Legislature.
Elstad added that the district will continue to look into other grants and means of funding the initiative, as well.