WCU wins $95,000 grant to help beginning teachers across region

A two-year $95,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation will help Western Carolina University enhance efforts to improve the retention rate of first-year teachers in seven western North Carolina school systems.

The grant supports Project START, which stands for Supporting, Training And Retaining Teachers. The initiative links WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions and school systems in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, creating a networked community that encourages teachers to collaborate and share their practices.

The project’s online resources include professional learning communities, where beginning teachers working in similar settings can come together virtually to discuss issues and seek coaching and guidance from their peers, mentors and university faculty; Web-logs, where new teachers can reflect on their developing expertise as well as compare and comment on the experiences of others; and other resources such as annotated Web sites, grade-level or content-specific resources, and lesson plans.

“The goal of Project START is to ensure first-year teachers are supported as they make the transition from ‘students of teaching’ to ‘teachers of students,’” said Janice Holt, director of Western’s Center for the Support of Beginning Teachers.

Many new teachers who enter the profession fail to stay in the classroom because of the pressures of the job, feelings of isolation and lack of support, said Holt. With Project START, a beginning science teacher could discuss online a specific classroom challenge with a mentor with science teaching experience and a WCU faculty member. The conversation could continue face-to-face with a mentor or Western faculty member traveling to the classroom, or the networked team meeting in one of Western’s science labs.

“With an average of 15 to 20 new teachers every year, we don’t have a lot of teachers that have the same content area or the same grade-level, which makes it very difficult to provide support and training for those teachers,” said Terri Hollifield, federal programs coordinator and initially licensed teacher coordinator for Jackson County Schools. “Project START targets the specific needs of teachers through web-based collaboration and online mentoring. It means a great deal for a small system like Jackson County Schools.”

The nonprofit Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, established in 1936 as a memorial to the youngest son of the founder of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, makes grants to benefit the people of North Carolina. The foundation has made grants totaling more than $375 million to recipients in all 100 counties of the state. Past grants have supported teacher training and retention programs that led to development of Western’s Center for the Support of Beginning Teachers. The retention rate for the new teachers who participated in Western’s Beginning Teacher/Teacher Leader program that the foundation funded from 2002-04 was 100 percent as new teachers entered their third and fourth years.

For more information, contact Janice Holt at (828) 227-3310 or check out www.ceap.wcu.edu/csbt.