To say that Tampa Bay area school officials are upset about the University of South Florida’s plan to end its undergraduate teaching degree programs would be an understatement.
“The word ‘detrimental’ has been used several times,” said Dunedin Elementary School principal Kerry Wyatt, a College of Education alumna. “I’m going to use the word ‘devastating.’”
Rather than sit back and wait for the inevitable end, though, education leaders from throughout Tampa Bay area decided to look for ways to influence — and perhaps reverse — the outcome. More than 200 of them, including Wyatt, gathered Friday morning on a Zoom call coordinated by the Pinellas Education Foundation.
For an hour, they detailed the important role that USF has played in preparing teachers for children in all its surrounding counties, and spoke of the hole that would exist if the option were to disappear. Area districts get about a quarter or more of their new teaching hires annually from the program, in addition to receiving dozens of interns who help classrooms while getting hands-on training.
“They come in ready, passionate, qualified and energetic to work with students,” Edwina Oliver, principal of Booker Elementary, a Title I school in Sarasota County, said of the USF grads she hires. “I don’t see how the value of this (potential closure) is going to make a difference with kids.”
One by one, the speakers observed that the area has a shortage of qualified applicants for teaching vacancies, suggesting more support is needed for a top-notch undergraduate degree program that can funnel educators into high-demand subject areas. Without strong schools, many added, the economy will suffer — a fact highlighted in recent months by state officials who have tied school reopening directly to economic success.
“To eliminate a program that is beneficial to all of us is really one we don’t need to happen,” Polk County superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said.
In a message sent to the teleconference, United Faculty of Florida executive director Marshall Ogletree said USF’s College of Education faculty stands with the districts' efforts to halt the closure, and asked what it could do to help.
Judith Ponticell, interim dean of the college, sat through the entire conversation until Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego asked for her response. She made clear her desire to work with the K-12 school system to ensure the partnerships between them continue.
Hearing input from so many practitioners in the field the college serves “helps us in our planning process,” Ponticell told the group. “This is in its earliest, earliest stages.”
The College of Education must deal with its declining enrollment, she said, as well as its operating deficits. At the same time, she added, it must find ways to ensure the pipeline of teachers to local schools continues.
“We have no intention of abandoning teacher preparation,” Ponticell said. “We want to be your partner, to continue to be your partner.”
Grego encouraged the university to take the lead in the discussion moving forward, and said the districts “hope we can be part of the solution.” If other major universities can maintain strong undergraduate education programs, he said, USF should be able to do it too.
Former USF president and Florida education commissioner Betty Castor expressed optimism that Friday’s event could yield positive results.
“This is exactly what we need to send the message of the value of the College of Education,” Castor said. “Hopefully, this discussion will be a bridge to the university to consider other options that may be available.”