O'FALLON — Robin Aston and Kelsie Kestler are about to graduate from Southeast Missouri State University but don't have to worry about finding a job. Both lined that up before going to college.
The women will have jobs waiting for them teaching special education in the Fort Zumwalt School District in St. Charles County. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the jobs are guaranteed through a "Grow Your Own Teacher" program.
"Without this program, I would have trouble seeking a job," said Aston, 22. "I would be confused about how to get to this point. I would not know what a school district was looking for."
The district began the program in 2005 in response to difficulty in recruiting teachers for some high-demand subjects. High school seniors apply and go through a screening process. Those selected receive $3,000 per semester for four years — $24,000 total. In return, they must spend their first four years after college teaching in the district. If they don't complete the four years in the district, they must pay back the $24,000. The district describes it as a forgivable loan program, not a scholarship.
Deputy Superintendent Patty Corum formed a committee in 2004 to study how the district could respond to the growing need for teachers certified in special education, foreign language, industrial technology and high school math and science. The committee based the Grow Your Own Teacher program on a similar system in Wichita, Kan.
The committee established a nonprofit education foundation that raises money through employee payroll deductions, private donations and fundraising. Corum said the foundation has $150,000 in hand, collecting about $55,000 annually.
The program has seven students enrolled in college this year. Aston and Kestler will be the first graduates.
Aston, a graduate of Fort Zumwalt South High School, kept in touch with a Fort Zumwalt teacher mentor and attended two teacher leadership training meetings each year. She said Corum and Superintendent Bernard DuBray often called her and met her for dinner or lunch.
Aston began student teaching full time at Fort Zumwalt North High School in January.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Emily Byers, a senior at Fort Zumwalt North, is just entering the program. She plans to begin classes this fall at Truman State, one of seven universities participating in the program. Byers plans to major in biology and chemistry so she can become a high school science teacher in the Fort Zumwalt district.
Byers, whose mother is a second-grade teacher in the district, said the $24,000 loan should pay her entire tuition. Scholarships from the university would pay for housing and books. So she would have a free ride, plus a job when she graduated.
"It's a dream come true for me," Byers said. "When they came to my class to tell me I was accepted, I was so excited, I started crying. I didn't know if I should walk or sit down. My friend held me up so I wouldn't fall. I was shaking so bad."
Byers called her mother to tell her the good news. "She started screaming," she said. "My dad found out later. He jumped up and down so much, he blew out a kitchen light bulb."