Corporate aid to education raises complicated questions in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools | WFAE 90.7

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I couldn’t have asked for a nicer way to wrap up 2023 than speaking with UNC Charlotte students Cing Thian Kim, Fiona Ganchenko and Monet Evans about their plans to become teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. They’re bright, passionate young women getting support from a partnership between the university, the school district and a corporate community that’s providing them a hefty scholarship. What’s not to like?

Well … it’s complicated, as most things related to public education are. When CMS opened its Teacher Early College magnet high school on campus in 2017 and got good response from students, I naively thought that meant there would be dozens of aspiring teachers in college by now, most of them students of color. In fact, I learned that about three-quarters of the students who have graduated from the teacher-prep high school are not enrolled in schools of education.

I suppose it’s no surprise that many students who choose a magnet program in eighth grade are not ready to make a career commitment. And the enticements to pursue a more lucrative calling are obvious.

Even those who soldier on may not return to CMS. Last year I profiled Landy Solorzano, a stand-out student who was already working as a teacher assistant in CMS. She’d been named her school’s teacher assistant of the year at 18. She seemed to represent potential for CMS to cultivate much-needed Hispanic educators, in a district where almost 30% of students fit that category.

But when I touched base recently with Will Leach, principal of the Charlotte Early Teacher College high school, he told me that a former administrator at his school got hired as a principal in Mooresville Graded Schools, and “having taught (Solarzano), he hired her to teach language arts.”

So CMS, UNC Charlotte and the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council put their heads together on ways to improve the pipeline leading to CMS classrooms. What emerged was a Barnhill Foundation scholarship that’s providing generous support to the three young women, who have agreed to spend at least three years working in the district. The university hopes to expand that program.

Charity and advocacy

I’ve been thinking about conversations I had with Jennifer De La Jara just before she left the CMS board in December. The leadership council is providing all kinds of support for CMS, including executives on loan and school volunteers. De La Jara says that’s great, but only if business leaders also advocate for policies that strengthen public education. If corporate leaders content themselves with feeling good about the add-ons, she said, the foundations will remain weak.

De La Jara and I didn’t talk about the Barnhill scholars, but consider that program in that context. Let’s imagine that more companies and foundations join in, ensuring that any qualified graduate of the CMS teacher high school can leave UNC Charlotte debt-free, with a bachelor’s degree in education and a commitment to teach in CMS. That would be a remarkable community accomplishment. And it probably wouldn’t be enough to meet the need if teacher pay, working conditions and respect in the community don’t improve.

Ganchenko, a 19-year-old UNC Charlotte student who was salutatorian of Charlotte Teacher Early College High’s Class of 2023, had similar thoughts. In her graduation speech, she said low pay and dangerous schools deter would-be teachers. She chose the profession anyway, but when I asked her what it would take to encourage large numbers of peers to join her — CMS alone needs hundreds of new teachers each year — she said individual passion and generous scholarships aren’t enough.

“It’s a lot of work we have to put in as a society in order to get more teachers,” she said. The problem, she said, isn’t that young adults can’t figure out how to become teachers. “It’s more of a problem of, ‘I wouldn’t want to be a teacher. Not in this day and age.’ ”

Meanwhile, my colleague Gwendolyn Glenn checked in with Profound Gentlemen, another private effort to increase the supply and diversity of teachers. The Charlotte-based organization works to recruit and support Black male teachers, who are severely underrepresented in schools. It’s a national program now that has expanded to encompass all male educators of color. But its director told Glenn the shortage of such educators remains dire.