HAMLET — Gretchen Martin is a homegrown teacher.
It’s for people like her why Richmond Community College and UNC Pembroke forged the schools’ latest agreement.
RichmondCC President Dr. Dale McInnis and UNCP Chancellor Dr. Robin Cummings signed the “Growing Our Own” agreement during a presentation Thursday at Cole Auditorium.
The purpose of the initiative “is to increase interest in education and to decrease the severe shortage of teachers” in rural North Carolina, according to Wylie Bell, RichmondCC’s director of marketing and communications.
Bell said the partnership “outlines a pathway for high school and college students“ to become teachers through UNCP, with the university accepting courses from RichmondCC in the Associate in Arts or Associate in Science teacher prep programs.
“Previous research has proven that graduates in Education begin their teaching careers in the same regions and school districts where they live and are more likely to remain teaching in N.C. public schools,” Bell said. “With this partnership and the scholarships available (Lois McKay Smith Memorial and RCC Guarantee, etc.) along with the Tuition Promise at UNCP, students can get a degree in Education at a fraction of the cost in attending other institutions.”
CLOSE TO HOME
Martin is currently a teacher at Richmond Early College High School and adjunct faculty member with RichmondCC, where she started toward her career goal.
“After a few years here, I graduated with an Associate Degree and I knew I wanted to teach,” Martin told the small crowd, which included around a dozen current or former teachers — half of whom attended UNCP.
Martin transferred to UNCP and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Middle Grades Education and soon after landed a job at Rohanen Junior High in East Rockingham.
Wanting more, she returned to UNCP to pursue a Master’s Degree in Reading Education while also teaching full time.
“I can sincerely say I have no regrets about remaining close to home,” Martin said. “Taking a different path, away from home, would have likely been overwhelming for me in more ways than one.”
As a teacher, Martin said she’s met many students with similar roots, whose family obligations “call for a different plan” than going across the state or to another state for college.
Through both of her positions at RichmondCC, Martin said she understands the importance of building relationships with students.
“It is one of the most important aspects of teaching,” she said. “We must understand the demographics we serve.”
Many students in rural counties like Richmond help parents pay the bills or take care of family members, Martin said.
Starting at a community college and transferring to a university “saves time, money and hassle for so many families,” she added.
“Future teachers like myself will understand the difficult choices about college and accept no excuses,” Martin said. “They will push for excellence, they will relate to their students just as I have.
“Our school system will benefit from homegrown teachers as well,” she continued, adding that turnover is lower, teachers are invested in the community, and “relationships between teachers and students thrive.”
At Rohanen, Martin said the teachers “encouraged our students to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from, but it’s where you’re going that makes a difference.”
She adds a message to future teachers: “Your roots do matter. Embrace them, know why you do what you do, and give back to the community that grew you. We’ll grow together if we grow our own.”
McInnis said the agreement is unique to the state.
While North Carolina’s universities and community colleges tried to negotiate an agreement, “we got tired of waiting.”
When officials from both institutions met in August of 2020 to formulate a plan, Dr. Loury Floyd, Dean of Education at UNCP said while the first half of the meeting revolved around problems, the second half involved coming up with solutions.
Floyd said the School of Education’s mission is to make sure Southeastern North Carolina has a strong supply of prepared teachers.
“Not having enough qualified teachers harms our students,” Floyd said.
Both she and Cummings talked about how students in the region have endured multiple hurricanes and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic, “events well beyond their control.”
Students in the fourth grade and higher, Cummings said, have missed nearly two years of education since 2016.
“We all know, as educators, how important those first years are … to establish that foundation, “ Cummings said. “So those students are going to show up and they’re going to need a lot of help to help them succeed.”
Floyd said there is a moral obligation to meet the needs of the students.
“We need highly qualified teachers in every classroom, because that’s what every student deserves,” Floyd said.
To find them, the colleges decided the best place to look was in their own collective backyard.
“Rural North Carolina has to grow our own teachers because the current business model is not sustainable,” McInnis said.
When recruiting teachers from out of state, McInnis said they work here for a few years and just as they’re beginning to learn their craft, they leave — “and then we’re beginning that same cycle all over again and it never ends, while we have talent, brains, willpower right here at home.”
Local potential teachers just need a pathway, “a push in the right direction,” McInnis said.
“We need to remove some barriers and roadblocks, and that’s exactly what this agreement will do,” McInnis added.
The largest barrier, according to McInnis, has been getting students into the school of education to pass the Praxis, a test for teacher certification.
Floyd said Praxis Core will be addressed at the community college “and it will give us baseline data that we need in order to better support them when they arrive on our campuses.”
McInnis added that the group wanted students and their families “to recognize the prestige, the esteem, the value, that school teachers deserve, so that people who had considered other careers will think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is something I want to do. I want to give back, I want to participate.”
Whether the students are fresh out of high school or changing careers, McInnis said the agreement offers a new opportunity to take education courses on Richmond’s campus.
“We won’t have to recreate the wheel,” McInnis said. “We’re going to share resources instead of compete for resources … what a concept.”
In addition, Floyd said students would be dually enrolled in both colleges during their final semester, much like in the BraveStep program, introduced in 2019.
Floyd said that would help smooth the transition into UNCP life.
“If we, rural North Carolina, don’t stick together, we’re going to fall apart together … we have to work together to find solutions to common problems we all share,” McInnis said. “And it starts in the classroom.”
Scotland County Schools Superintendent Dr. Takeda LeGrand is currently recruiting nationwide for teachers, according to McInnis.
“And there’s talent right here in this region, people that will never leave … because this is home and they care about their communities and they care about their children and our children and your children and your grandchildren,” McInnis said. “And that caring and compassion can’t be taught, it can’t be transferred from another part of the world. And that’s what you’ve got to have to be a successful teacher.”
Cummings said he and McInnis are kindred spirits because they both came back to where they grew up to help others further their education.
The chancellor praised McInnis’ vision and said it will be the community colleges that help get students college-ready.
And with the multiple educational incentive programs — including the RichmondCC Guarantee, BraveStep and NC Promise — students can obtain a Bachelor’s degree virtually debt free, Cummings said.
“I’m looking forward to graduating the first cohort students that are going to take advantage of this and become your students and your future teachers,” McInnis said.