Ashley Ellixson always knew she wanted to teach elementary students, and she got an early start to solidify that dream as a high schooler thanks to a partnership between the UCF School of Teacher Education and Tavares High School.

Now graduating this fall, Ellixson is among the first of the Tavares Teaching Academy students to complete their bachelor’s degrees at UCF. Her program of choice was early childhood development and education.

Through the program, students get early introductions to college coursework and access to resources like UCF faculty and hands-on classroom experiences as high schoolers. It also creates a pathway for students to get their associate degree from local state colleges, earning them direct admission to UCF. Upon finishing their bachelor’s degree, participants are guaranteed a job interview with Lake County Schools.

Associate instructor Marni Kay says the program intends to help address the critical teaching shortage on a local level while also showing high school students what college will look like for them.

“When districts work to ‘grow their own,’ students can start in their own schools and do service-learning partnerships with children in their own community, and then they can become teachers in the community,” Kay says. “Ashley is the perfect example of how this idea works.”

The built-in support system was a highlight of the program for Ellixson.

“It was so nice to have people in my court through the teaching academy,” Ellixson says. “I got a lot of mentors from the program who still support me to this day. It’s one thing to have your professors here on campus while you’re in class with them, but really having those people back home for me was so nice, to have those people established early on.”

Ellixson says another benefit of the program was receiving so much hands-on experience.

“I feel like you can never have too much experience with students,” she says. “You can work in 10 different classrooms, and every single one of them is going to be different, so the more hands-on experience you have is crucial. Starting early in the teaching academy made me feel even more prepared.”

She says her favorite part of the program was being part of Reading Buddies, during which the teaching academy students got to visit a local elementary school every week to read to and get to know the students.

For the spring, Ellixson says she plans to stay substitute-teaching certified for the rest of the academic year so that she can start a full-time teaching career at the beginning of the school year next fall. She has been offered an opportunity to begin teaching full-time in January but says she may choose to wait so that she can start fresh with students during a new school year.

While she is certified to teach preschool through third grade, Ellixson says her passion is teaching kindergarteners.

“Kindergarten has a lot of foundational skills and stuff that they will always remember,” Ellixson says. “In kindergarten, some of them have never even been in school before, and they leave you knowing how to write a sentence, how to write their name, and their numbers along with basic addition and subtraction. Kindergarten is where they’re really sponges and absorb all that. Some people might be nervous to work with kids who may come to you not knowing anything, but that’s just the magic of being a teacher.”