Thanks to a competitive, six-figure grant, Fort Hays State University’s department of teacher education will implement a new program during the 2016-17 school year.

The In PLACE Education Project — Innovative Pathways to Licensure and Competency in Elementary Education — is a program aimed at increasing the number of qualified elementary school teachers in underserved Kansas school districts. It will receive the Kansas Board of Regents Kansas Teacher Education Grant totaling $104,033.

Underserved districts, according to the Kansas Department of Education, are districts that have difficulty filling teaching positions. Urban areas such as Topeka, Kansas City, Kan., and Wichita, as well as State Board of Education District 5, which includes most of western Kansas, are considered underserved school districts.

Two pathways

The grant will include two innovative pathways, a residency pathway and an online, or virtual pathway.

“In the residency program, we’re going to partner with school districts to work with paraprofessionals and individuals who currently work within the district they’ll serve but aren’t certified to teach,” said Teresa Woods, In PLACE project director and an assistant professor of teacher education at Fort Hays State. “This program will allow them to continue working within their district while taking classes toward getting their certification.”

Woods said the online pathway is for current and prospective FHSU students who are bound to underserved geographic areas “but are committed to becoming certified teachers within that specific area.”

“Most of our students are nontraditional students, meaning they may have children to take care of or, for whatever reason, have to work full time to maintain a living,” she said. “We have people who are committed to working in their community but don’t have the means to take classes and get certified.”

Grant will fund scholarships

In an effort to alleviate financial barriers, Woods said $55,000 of the grant will go toward scholarships “to individuals in the residency and online pathways.”

“We must remove every barrier we can in an effort to certify more elementary school teachers. We need to be committed to serving underserved areas and, by taking away barriers that prevent that from happening, we’re taking the first step,” she said. “There are so many people who can’t afford to not work but who want to teach in the community in which they live. We want to make that a possibility.”

Four other teacher education professors are a part of implementing the In PLACE project — Lorie Cook-Benjamin, Sherri Brantley, Beth Walizer and Janet Stramel. Woods said a project manager position will be added “to help everyone involved in our pathways to stay on track and know what to expect from the program.”

“One of the primary strengths at Fort Hays State University is delivering online coursework and through that we believe we’re going to be able to recruit place-bound teacher candidates who we believe can serve in areas they’re familiar with,” Woods said. “These students are going to be able to take coursework online and do clinical experiences within a district. That’s what we’re excited about.”

Hoping for 15 new teachers

Woods said the In PLACE team hopes to recruit 15 new elementary teacher candidates during the 2016-17 school year — all who must be committed to teaching in underserved districts — and an additional 20 candidates the following year if the grant is renewed.

“We have an opportunity to make a positive impact on elementary education across the state of Kansas. We’re going to invest in those who are committed to serving underserved areas,” Woods said. “With this being a pilot program, we want to make sure we find ways to improve as the year goes along and make our students’ experience a great one and free of barriers.”