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Thursday, March 4, 2010 09:01 am

Grow Your Own Teachers faces drought

Successful program pairs unlikely educators with community classrooms

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State Sen. Kim Lightford addresses a crowd of 200 members and supporters of Grow Your Own Teachers at a Feb. 23 rally at the Capitol. The state-funded program covers the cost of tuition, books and fees for nontraditional students in exchange for five year
PHOTO BY AMANDA ROBERT

Instead of becoming a college student, Fallon Rowl became a single mom.

She got pregnant right after she graduated from Southeast High School, and for the next three years worked several office jobs to support her daughter. In October 2005, she was hired as a special education attendant at Grant Middle School. That’s when everything changed.

Rowl heard about Grow Your Own Teachers, a statewide initiative that connects school districts, colleges and universities and community organizations to help low- and moderate- income parents, school employees and community members become teachers. The program covers the cost of tuition, books and fees in exchange for five years of service in a local school.

“I never would’ve had the chance to go back to school and financially be able to afford it,” Rowl says. “Grow Your Own was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Rowl signed on with Grow Your Own in the summer of 2007, and now works as a full-time security guard at Grant and takes night classes at Benedictine University at Springfield. The mother of two and future language arts teacher will finish classes in December and begin student teaching next spring.

“I see so many kids who are on the borderline, and they just need someone to care,” Rowl says. “I didn’t come from a family with a lot of money — it was time for me to put that to use. Like every other teacher, you want to help. You want to leave your mark on the world.”

Last week, nearly 200 members and supporters, as well as several legislators, rallied at the Capitol to protest potential 40 percent cuts to next year’s funding. Grow Your Own has annually received $3.5 million from the state.

Rally speakers included House Speaker Michael Madigan, State Sens. Iris Martinez, Jackie Collins and Kim Lightford, and State Reps. Esther Golar and Lou Lang.

“I’m tired. I’m sick and tired that every year there’s not enough money to improve our children’s education,” Lightford told the crowd. “It’s our children falling by the wayside in these communities, and we have to take a stand.”

Grow Your Own initially began in Chicago in 2003, when the Chicago Learning Campaign started sending classroom assistants back to school to become fully certified teachers. In 2004, the Illinois Grow Your Own Task Force drafted and passed the Grow Your Own Teachers Act, and in 2005, the Illinois General Assembly appropriated funding to the evolving state program.

There are now 16 Grow Your Own partnerships in Illinois, including one between Springfield Public Schools, the University of Illinois Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College and Springfield College-Benedictine University.

Doris Woolery, Springfield’s Grow Your Own coordinator, says the key to the program is bringing knowledge of the community into the classroom.

“They’re not teachers from outside Springfield that we’re bringing in, that don’t know anything about the area,” Woolery says. “These teachers come from the community that they want to teach in. They know the families, they know those kids.”

Grow Your Own has produced 21 teachers statewide after four years in operation. At least 80 more will graduate by spring 2011, and an additional 350 are in the application process.

Eighty-five percent of Grow Your Own graduates and candidates are people of color, while only 13 percent of graduates of state colleges of education are people of color, according to program estimates.

Springfield currently has two Grow Your Own graduates at Springfield Public Schools:  Nikki Moore, a second-grade teacher at Dubois Elementary, and Jelinda Nunn, a second-grade teacher at Ridgely Elementary.

Nunn worked as a loan assistant before deciding that she wanted to return to school for an education degree. She took a job as a preschool assistant at Ridgely and attended night classes at Benedictine University.

She only had one year of school left when she heard about Grow Your Own, but says she was grateful to receive financial support. She graduated in May 2008 and started as a third-grade teacher at Harvard Park Elementary. She returned to Ridgely last fall.

For Nunn, teaching brings excitement.

“My kids really, really love to read this year, and I love seeing that,” she says. “It’s so important in life, and I hope they’ll carry it on. You have to be able to read to succeed.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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