Superintendent MaryEllen Elia stood before seniors in the Urban Teaching Academy as they looked at the contract that could eventually bring them back home. The four-page document spelled out the enticing deal students had signed up for as freshmen but still had to sign off on: In exchange for college tuition and money for books, they would agree to work in a low-income Hillsborough school for three years. "Thank you ahead of time for the work you're going to do in college. It isn't going to be easy," Elia recently told students in the academy's first graduating class. "But keep going because at the end of that degree, you will have a job." The path to graduation has not been easy.
Joining the untested program, the students weathered changes along the way. Lessons were still evolving, although mentoring was good. Dozens left the program because it was not the right fit for them, including one teacher.
Then, in their final months, the remaining students learned that school officials were struggling to raise enough money to send them to college as promised.
Still, among the two dozen seniors who fulfilled all the program requirements and were expected to collect their diplomas this week, the desire that brought them to the academy remains intact.
"I think it's a life lesson. It proved to me that I really want to do it," said Monique Manlapig, 17, of Hillsborough High School. "No obstacles will stop me."
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The academy at Hillsborough, Blake and Middleton high schools emerged from a realization that it was hard to interest urban teenagers in a career that would return them to inner-city schools.
Nationwide, high teacher turnover in struggling, low-income schools costs taxpayers $2.6 billion a year, said Delia Stafford, president of the Haberman Educational Foundation.
For Debi Turner, principal of Blanton Elementary, a low-income school in St. Petersburg with low teacher turnover, it comes down to finding teachers with passion.
Give me teachers who can look past unruly behavior and shabby clothing, she said. "I can teach you the rest."
But enticing random high schoolers to commit to a career already known for low pay and challenging work can be tenuous.
Hillsborough officials modeled their program after one in Broward County. Sara Rogers, who helped start the Broward program nearly a decade ago, said she shared curriculum, a grant application and advice, such as the importance of hands-on teaching experiences and of waiting for students to mature before going into middle schools to recruit.
"We had been through some of the bumps," said Rogers, who retired in 2010. "We were able to help them."
Broward's program has put 343 students into college through a combination of financial aid counseling and about $100,000 in fundraising.
Still, even as far along as Broward's program is, officials won't have proof that their investment paid off for at least two more years. Broward's initial recruits are only now finishing their first year of teaching.
One is Jewel Johnson, a middle school math teacher who says the program taught her how to manage her class while still making personal connections.
"I'm serious about teaching math," Johnson, 25, said. "But if they need to talk, I have an open door."
She says she plans to stay in an urban setting beyond her three-year commitment. "That's where my heart is."
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In Hillsborough, Kenyon Chesser also has been teaching middle school math and watched as a few students made great strides.
"It gave me a nice warm feeling," he said. "It's like when you plant a seed and you see it grow."
Kenyon, 18, moved to Town 'N Country in the beginning of seventh grade from Georgia and started school at Webb Middle. He was a shy kid who wouldn't fight back and became the target of some kids he describes as "vicious to anyone not part of their gang."
In class, he watched as students cursed at teachers and threw things at them. He watched teachers come and leave a week later. But some stayed. They recognized that Kenyon wanted to learn. He could talk to them about anything, he said. He wants to be a teacher like that.
The goal has remained even after most of his peers found other interests.
"In elementary school, everyone wants to be a teacher," said Kenyon, 18, who is graduating from Hillsborough High. "In high school, most students don't think it's a viable form of work."
While the Hillsborough program sought to enroll 75 students each year, or 25 per school, the numbers did not reach that level and there was attrition along the way.
Forty-one remained in the inaugural class in its second year, according to a memo from former program coordinator Jennifer Morley.
"Kids just decided they don't want to be a teacher anymore," Monique Manlapig, the Hillsborough High student, said.
At last count there were 29 remaining from the inaugural class, although only 24 had done what they needed to be accepted into college. The other five were awaiting acceptable scores on the ACT , according to the school district.
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Caitlin Visnovec was one of those who stuck it out.
The 18-year-old rode a bus two hours each way from her home in Sun City Center to Blake every day for the past four years. After graduating from the program, she plans to go to Hillsborough Community College.
"I would sleep on the bus," said Caitlin, who said she was thrilled to graduate and to get the scholarship.
The academy started with a two-day summer camp where students met their peers. Over the next four years, they learned to dress professionally and plan lessons. They shadowed teachers and learned how administrators score them. They read books about child development and learned to reach students with different learning styles. Then they took these lessons into classrooms, where they taught students under the supervision of actual teachers.
Heather Nelli, 17, completed the program with a 4.3 grade point average. She wants to teach eighth-grade math and knows it will come with challenges. As a student, she struggled to learn science. So as a teacher, she presented material in different ways to reach visual, verbal and hands-on learners.
Today, she has acceptance letters from three state universities, including her choice, Florida A&M University.
Elisha Farrell taught kindergarten, then first and second grades. This year, she taught a middle school class.
"At first it was a little scary," said Elisha, 19. "But then the kids warmed up to me."
She gave them respect and incentives, like cupcakes with FCAT tips written in icing. She learned what she doesn't want to do and what she does. Elementary students left her tired. Middle schoolers came with complications. So Elisha decided on high school art.
"I loved the program. I got a lot of hands-on experience," said Elisha, who also bonded with her classmates at Hillsborough High. "We had the same interests and we helped each other."
In the fall, she will start college at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where her sister is also studying to be a teacher.
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District officials say they plan to hold a special ceremony for academy students to award the scholarships.
Next school year, the Urban Teaching Academy will accept students at Blake only, and the district will no longer give scholarships. While Middleton and Hillsborough won't take new students into the program, those already enrolled at the schools will be able to continue through graduation.
School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose district includes all three schools, attended the meetings and urged the students to avoid giving in to social criticism of teachers, or friends who might discourage them.
Edgecomb, a 46-year educator, has visited each school often, she said, encouraging the students. At one meeting she told them: "It's the richest career you could ever have."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.