As many as 500 middle and high school math and science teachers in Pinellas County will have a shot at getting advanced degrees and training, thanks to a new program being launched by the University of Florida.
The Lastinger Center for Learning, housed under the university's College of Education, is spearheading the program with the help of a $1.6 million grant from the Helios Education Foundation, based in Tampa.
The program, which will stretch across four years, will begin recruiting next semester. In all, 100 teachers will be eligible to earn a free master's degree in exchange for a five-year teaching commitment to their schools. The remaining 400 will be enrolled in the center's professional development program.
The teachers will come from a cluster of high-needs middle and high schools in the county.
"The essence of this grant is to develop master teachers," said Don Pemberton, Lastinger's founding director and a former Pinellas educator. "By master teachers we mean teachers who will improve student achievement."
Officials announced the grant during a math and science summit last week at UF. The news came as a pleasant surprise for Pinellas school officials.
"It had been rumored to me that they were looking into this," said Rose Mack, the district's secondary mathematics supervisor. "They hadn't told me it was confirmed."
The Lastinger Center, founded in 2002, has had a significant presence in elementary school teacher training throughout the state, including at 19 schools in Pinellas.
But this program marks the beginning of a shift to pour more resources into secondary teacher training to revamp math and science instruction.
"I'm elated and ecstatic that our secondary school teachers have this opportunity," Mack said. "The sooner we can get our teachers trained in the concepts of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) … the better for the students."
Details about the program are still being hammered out, Pemberton said.
Teachers will have access to a myriad of training opportunities, he said, including summer sessions and on-the-job training. Those in the degree program will take online classes and have access to a UF education professor who will visit them on site.
The approach is unlike traditional professional development programs, Pemberton said, in which teachers go off to a conference once or twice a year and then are expected to apply a few concepts to the classroom. Instead, he said, the teachers get practical support and training that's embedded into their jobs.
"What we're really trying to do is create a rich learning environment for the educators so they can provide a rich learning environment for the students," Pemberton said.
Officials chose to launch the program in Pinellas because they were impressed by what the schools are already doing to boost math and science, Pemberton said.
Earlier this fall, the district announced a pilot program to get more middle school students ready for grade-level and advanced math classes. The program came out of a partnership with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, SRI International and the Helios Foundation.
Ian Smith, chief communications officer at Helios, said the organization is equally as excited about the Lastinger project.
"It's really about giving those teachers more access to the skills and resources at the University of Florida … to help them and augment them in teaching STEM courses," Smith said.
"The hope is that it can become a national model."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.