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NC Teaching Fellows’ return to HBCUs is ‘small but mighty’ and the scholarship could grow

Liz Schlemmer
Students Dominik Alston and Lauren Dotson are among the first Teaching Fellows at North Carolina A&T State University since the scholarship program returned to the historically Black university in Fall of 2022.

Professor Gerrelyn Patterson was thrilled when she first heard the news that the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program would return to North Carolina A&T State University’s College of Education.

“I was on a Zoom call with my dean,” recalls Patterson, who chairs the department of educator preparation. “She said, ‘We got Teaching Fellows back,’ and I literally jumped up because it was such a big deal.”

North Carolina Teaching Fellows is a scholarship program for aspiring teachers, with a long, and politically charged history. Since it began in 1987, more than five thousand fellows have taught in North Carolina schools. Many are still in classrooms or in school leadership positions.

Citing costs and the desire to focus on other recruitment strategies, the Republican-led General Assembly ended the Teaching Fellows program in 2011. Then they brought it back on a smaller scale in 2017, and students could only use the funding at five universities. Before, it had been available at 17 universities across the state, including A&T.

“Teaching Fellows is the premier teaching scholarship in the state of North Carolina,” Patterson says. “Historically, it was the scholarship.”

This year, the program expanded to NC A&T, Fayetteville State and UNC Pembroke in an effort to diversify the applicant pool, as directed by a 2020 state law. Patterson says now one of her challenges is growing the number of Teaching Fellows on her campus.

Liz Schlemmer
Professor Gerrelyn Patterson is the chair of the educator preparation department at NC A&T's college of education, which welcomed its first freshmen class of NC Teaching Fellows in nearly a decade last fall.

“We're small but mighty,” Patterson says. “The word has to get back out that A&T is back on the scene, right?”

Before the General Assembly repealed the program in 2011, A&T typically graduated 15 to 20 Teaching Fellows each year. Now, there are three.

College freshman Dominik Alston is one of the new fellows on campus. He says he had never heard of Teaching Fellows until a teacher from his church sent him an application. She was so proud when he was awarded the fellowship.

“People that knew about how big it was before, then I tell them [that I was selected], and they tell me that it's a big deal,” Alston says.

When he got the fellowship and saw that he could apply it to A&T — his dream school — he felt like everything fell into place. The fellowship is really a loan that covers four years of tuition that recipients like Alston can pay back in cash or by teaching for at least four years in North Carolina public schools.

“It gives me a lot of motivation to keep on with my degree, because it's loan forgiveness, and if I don't finish, then my loans won't be forgiven,” Alston says.

His classmate Lauren Dotson — who’s training to be an agriculture teacher — says if it hadn’t been for this fellowship, she’s not sure she would’ve pursued teaching.

“It made it so much easier for me to attend college as a whole,” Dotson says. “If I hadn't gotten Teaching Fellows, I probably would have just gone to community college and gotten a welding certificate, honestly.”

She says her biggest motivation for going into teaching is the current shortage of teachers.

“We need more teachers in North Carolina,” Dotson says. “It's a job that needs done.”

History of NC Teaching Fellows

The NC Teaching Fellows program was first enacted to address a teacher shortage in the 1980s, says Michael Priddy, a former chair of the NC Teaching Fellows Commission that selects awardees.

“It’s almost deja vu,” Priddy says of the current shortage.

At the time, the Public School Forum of North Carolina — a think tank that advocates for public schools — proposed the creation of a state-supported loan forgiveness program to recruit teachers. Their proposal focused on improving the racial and geographic diversity of the teaching candidate pool and raising the academic profile of future teachers.

The Democratic-led General Assembly created NC Teaching Fellows and appointed the Public School Forum to administer the program. When Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2011 during a recession, they ended it in favor of funding Teach For America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years. Priddy was chair of the NC Teaching Fellows Commission at the time.

“There was confusion and surprise at the Public School Forum offices, because the 25-year history [of NC Teaching Fellows] had been an amazing history,” Priddy says.

The Public School Forum reports about 64% of recipients were employed in schools six or more years after receiving the award, resulting in more than 5,300 teachers who completed their service requirement in public schools across all 100 counties.

These are the 17 campuses that previously hosted NC Teaching Fellows before the General Assembly cut the program from the state budget in 2017.
Public School Forum of North Carolina
These are the 17 campuses that previously hosted NC Teaching Fellows before the General Assembly cut the program from the state budget in 2011.

Advocates pushed for the program to be phased out over several years, rather than abruptly ending funding for fellows who were still finishing degrees. The last cohort under the prior iteration graduated college in 2015.

The General Assembly then reinstated NC Teaching Fellows in 2017, but with multiple changes:

  • it was available to students at Elon University, Meredith College, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte
  • fellows must study subject areas related to STEM or special education and they must teach in those subjects to repay their loan with service
  • fellows must serve one year in a low-performing school or two years in another public school for every year a loan was awarded, or repay the year in cash
  • the UNC System would administer the program and oversee the NC Teaching Fellows Commission
  • the fellowship would be available not only to high school seniors, but also college transfer students and career-changers in short-term licensing programs

Where is NC Teaching Fellows now?

Bennett Jones became the director of the NC Teaching Fellows program this past fall, after being a high school principal. He says he believes the program could be a powerful tool to address the current teacher shortage.

“I believe the program needs to be the preeminent teacher recruitment tool in the state,” Jones says.

After initially returning to five predominantly-white universities, the UNC System announced in 2021 that NC Teaching Fellows would expand. Following a competitive application process that considered a university’s STEM and special education courses and ability to recruit diverse candidates, the NC Teaching Fellows Commission announced the program would be brought to NC A&T, Fayetteville State University and UNC Pembroke.

Liz Schlemmer
NC Teaching Fellows Lauren Dotson (middle) and Dominik Alston (right) work on a group project in an introduction to education class at North Carolina A&T State University.

Last week, NC Teaching Fellows announced its largest and most diverse class of newly awarded fellows since the program restarted in 2017. But it still awards far fewer fellowships than before 2011. The new limitations on who qualifies and which teaching colleges they can attend have narrowed the applicant pool.

A report by the NC Public School Forum says in 2011, NC Teaching Fellows received more than 2,000 applications for 500 scholarships. According to a UNC System report, in 2019 NC Teaching Fellows received 220 applications, awarded 133 scholarships and 101 students accepted the awards.

As the new director, Jones is eager to grow the program. He says if lawmakers changed the eligibility for the program, it could grow even without more state funding. The NC Teaching Fellows Commission passed a resolution this spring requesting changes.

“We just need the flexibility to use the funding we have,” Jones says.

Jones says between current state funding and the NC Teaching Fellows’ trust fund, the program could afford to award more scholarships or raise the dollar amounts awarded — but more qualified students need to apply.

A state budget proposal drafted in the state House would make the program available for all subject areas, at all UNC System schools, and reduce the number of years a recipient has to teach to repay the loan.

Republican Representative Jeffrey Elmore, a teacher from Wilkes County, spoke in favor of these changes at a press conference last week announcing the House’s education priorities. He says the teacher shortage is no longer affecting only STEM and special education.

“I've taught for 23 years and we're now seeing problems finding even elementary education [teachers]. And that has not been seen in my entire working career,” Elmore says. “We feel like the Teaching Fellows program could be, not the silver bullet, but a part of helping with that.”

But it’s uncertain whether the Senate, which was responsible for once ending the program, will include a similar item when it releases its version of the budget next month.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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