Ga. School District Finds New Teachers
Among Former Janitors, Cafeteria Staff
Jane Braxton Little
As James Gordon banters across the food counter with students filling their lunch plates in the school cafeteria, he often wonders how the conversation might be different if he were the students' teacher instead of the cafeteria manager.
Gordon will soon find out. He is moving from the cafeteria to the classroom at Garden City Elementary School in Savannah, Ga.
Gordon and a group of fellow school workers that includes janitors, bus drivers, teacher's aides and school secretaries are becoming qualified teachers through Savannah's Pathways to Teaching Careers, a program that gives noncertified school workers the opportunity to fulfill their desire to become qualified education professionals.
The intent is also to increase the ratio of minority teachers. Although 33 percent of the nation's public school students are minorities, only 13 percent of teachers are from minority groups. In Georgia, according to the most recent census figures, 15 percent of those working as teachers are from minority groups whereas minorities comprise 29 percent of the population.
Catherine Moore, 38, once a classroom aide and now a third-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary School, says like most Pathways participants she grew up in one of the low-income Savannah neighborhoods where her students live. "I know what these kids are going through," she said. "They may have started out the day wrong, but I'm here to see that their day gets better."
Moore and Gordon are among the 128 school support workers, 121 of them African Americans, who to date have been recruited from the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System by the Pathways to Teaching program.
The Savannah model, begun in 1993, is one of 43 Pathways programs nationwide aimed at attracting qualified teachers to public school positions. Its particular focus is recruiting male minority teachers for schools with large minority student populations.
To find candidates, program director Evelyn Dandy went into the schools themselves. Dedicated workers already committed to serving children in Savannah's inner city became the first Pathways class, going back to college so they could return to local schools as teachers.
"This is a mission for me: to create teachers for our community," said Dandy, an education professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.
Pathways provides around $9,000 per student to cover 80 percent of several years of tuition at Armstrong and Savannah State College. The grant funds also pay for books, typing services and other college costs. In return, the Pathways students promise to spend at least three years teaching in local classrooms.
Pathways applicants, all college graduates, must write three essays, provide recommendations and complete oral interviews before they are accepted into the program. Then they must maintain a 2.50 grade-point average while attending teacher workshops along with their academic classes.
"We can't just have any old body," Dandy said. "We have so many problems in our schools today and they will only get worse if we don't have dedicated people in our classrooms."
Pathways is no snap, said Sharonda Bradford, a former insurance saleswoman. She earned her teacher certification while working as a substitute teacher and managing a family. "It was hard to juggle everything. You get discouraged sometimes," said Bradford, 26.
Now that she is a language arts teacher at Coastal Middle School, Bradford says she uses her own struggles as a student to inspire her sixth graders. Bradford was recognized by her school for the Sally Mae First Year Teacher award.
Savannah Pathways, a partnership of Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah State College and the Chatham County school district, received a $1.2 million grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, which has invested $47 million nationwide over 10 years toward improving the quality of education in low-income neighborhoods.
Of the 2,200 Pathways students who enrolled in teaching programs across the country, 52 percent are African American and 90 percent have stayed with the program, said Bruce Trachtenberg, a spokesman for the DeWitt Wallace foundation in New York.
At Armstrong Atlantic University students of the Pathways program maintain a 3.11 grade-point average, over a full point above the average of the student teacher population.
Dandy credits this success to the rigorous process used to select Pathways scholars and the maturity of the candidates, who have entered teaching from other careers, are slightly older than the average new teacher and have their eyes wide open to the problems awaiting them in the classroom. "
Pathways scholars are seasoned. They've been to the top of the mountain," said Dandy.
Posted October 22, 1997