Florida needs new teachers. According to the Florida Department of Education, critical teacher shortage areas for the 2019-20 school year include science, language arts, mathematics, reading and several other subjects.

The department also states that these areas represent “where postsecondary institutions do not produce enough graduates to meet the needs of Florida’s K-12 student population.” Lake County Schools, which serves more than 42,000 students at 59 elementary, middle and high schools, is no exception.

“We have a shortage of certified teachers,” says Stephanie Luke, a math and science education instructor at UCF and chair of the Lake County School Board. “As a school board member, I’m critically aware of that.”

To address the problem, a growing partnership between the UCF College of Community Innovation and Education and Lake County Schools created a pathway for high school students with an interest in becoming teachers to earn a bachelor’s degree and become certified to fill the county’s vacancies. The Tavares Teaching Academy, now in its second year at Tavares High School, is designed to not only introduce students to the profession with specialized courses and hands-on classroom experiences, but also provide impactful collaborations with UCF elementary education faculty and students. By cultivating teachers within the community, this grow-your-own program was conceived to deliver a self-sustaining supply of new educators.

“The vision of this program is to produce highly qualified graduates who are from Lake County and will come back to teach in Lake County,” Luke says. “We know that if they come through this program from high school to UCF, they will be ready to go — and we’re really excited about it.”

Creating a Pathway

The partnership path leads Tavares Teaching Academy graduates to Lake-Sumter State College, where they will earn an associate’s degree that qualifies them for admission to UCF through the DirectConnect to UCF program. Upon achieving their bachelor’s degree and Florida state teacher certification, which they can complete at UCF’s elementary education program on site at the UCF Connect South Lake Center in Clermont, participants are guaranteed a job interview with Lake County Schools.

“We want to grow the teachers who know about the culture and community in Lake County,” says Bonnie Watkins, the Tavares High School teacher who leads the academy. “Our hope is that these experiences solidify [the students’] desire to become teachers and fulfill the needs in our classrooms.”

For Marni Kay, UCF instructor of reading education, the value of the academy is to place qualified, passionate, purposeful teachers in classrooms.

“The critical teaching shortage is the reason the Tavares Teaching Academy was started to intentionally show high school students what college will look like for them,” she says “We’re working to grow our own right in Lake County so that they’re able to start in Lake County schools, do service-learning partnerships with kids in their own community, and then become teachers in the community.”

According to Watkins, the strength of UCF’s elementary education program and its presence in Lake County are key to the partnership.

“Our students receive the benefit of shared resources from UCF, as well as advice from a UCF instructor,” she says. “We work together to create valuable field experiences that are essential to the success of the Teaching Academy program.”

Fueling Collaboration

Building a pathway for future teachers also involves bringing the high school and college students together for collaborative events and mentoring. The groups recently met at UCF Connect South Lake Center in Clermont to celebrate International Dot Day, a recognition of the works of children’s author Peter H. Reynolds. Thirty-five UCF students worked with 17 Teaching Academy students through six educational stations that reinforced the methods they’ll use one day to teach children to read. It’s this type of hands-on, practical experience that will fuel their success when theory becomes reality in their own classrooms.

“It’s so important to connect the research into action,” Kay says. “We model for students what they can do in their own classrooms and help them develop successful teaching strategies.”

It all adds up to Tavares Teaching Academy graduates who are better prepared to succeed in college — and in leading a classroom after they graduate from UCF and become certified by the state.

“These students will have a head start because they will have already spent time in front of a class,” Luke says. “In fact, as college instructors, we’ll need to step it up when we have this level of student coming in.”

For the high school students, spending time with their college counterparts helps reinforce why they participate in the academy.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to work with students who have the same passion as me, but are also role models since they’re older,” says Ashley Ellixson, a Tavares High School junior. “Meeting new people who are from different walks of life, but who also share the same interest, was an eye-opening experience.”

And there are benefits for the UCF teaching students, as well.

“I feel like a role model, trying to help the high schoolers understand what the expectations of being an elementary education student are at UCF,” says junior Kira Dowling. “It’s giving back to the community because these students are going to be in my position one day.”

The connections the students will build during the program are valuable beyond what the coursework will produce, because, as the instructors explain, teaching is a team effort.

“Teaching is not an isolated event,” says Kay. “Teaching should be a community partnership, because in the end we’re all in it to serve students.”