What to Know About ‘Grow Your Own’ Teacher Programs


Many school districts around the country are facing teacher shortages, particularly in areas such as special education, foreign languages, and science and math. At the same time, the existing teaching force – which is overwhelmingly white, in most places – often doesn’t reflect the demographics of the student body.

To address shortages and increase diversity within the workforce, many states and districts have turned to a specific kind of recruitment: “grow your own” programs.

What Are Grow Your Own Programs?

Through partnerships between school districts, community-based organizations and colleges, GYO programs recruit community members to teach in local pre-K-12 schools. While some programs help individuals already in the profession gain teaching licensure, like paraeducators or substitute teachers, most are geared toward introducing high school students to the field.

These programs provide wraparound support services to participants such as mentoring, culturally relevant pedagogy training and, in some states, financial support to cover the costs associated with teacher preparation.

“For our support staff and students who want to become teachers, they know the community, our procedures, what our values are and how we work as a system,” says Carmen Gwenigale, leadership fellow in the Iowa City Community School District’s “Grow Our Own” program. “There’s a better understanding of the system they are coming into and more of a commitment to wanting to help improve the schools from their current experience here as students.”

How Many States Have GYO Programs?

Nearly every state has at least one GYO program, with the exception of North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

But only about 15 states provide direct funding for GYO program development, implementation and sustainability, according to Amaya Garcia, deputy director of pre-K-12 education in the education policy program at New America, who studies the programs.

Impact of GYO Programs

More diverse classrooms.

Students of color make up more than half of the population in U.S. schools, yet about 80% of teachers are white, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Research has shown benefits, particularly for students of color, when students are matched with a teacher of their same race. Low-income Black students, for example, who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are 29% less likely to drop out of high school, according to a Johns Hopkins report.

Recruiting within local communities, rather than from other districts or states, means teacher demographics are more likely to mirror student demographics. Among the 250 current teacher candidates in Grow Your Own Illinois, for instance, two-thirds are people of color, says Tasha Levy, deputy director of the program.

Airon Giron, a graduate of the program who now teaches a dual language third grade classroom in Gurnee, says a diverse teaching workforce helps students to see themselves in their teachers. “It sends a message to them that they too can teach one day,” Giron wrote in an email. “I want to be the teacher that hears, empowers and advocates for their students. I want to be a teacher who can guide students by sharing my experience as a first-generation Latino with similar experiences.”

Fill classroom gaps.

School districts often struggle to find well-qualified special education and English as a second language teachers, experts say. But some states are looking to use GYO programs to fill those gaps.

The Tennessee education department awarded grow your own grants to teacher preparation programs across the state, like Tennessee State University, that are partnering with local school districts to fill positions. The grants cover tuition, textbooks and fees for teacher candidates. Upon graduation from TSU’s program, participants earn a dual credential in either special education or ESL, in addition to their initial endorsement, to address local school district shortages in these positions.

GYO programs “can be very intentionally designed to ensure that the teachers going through them are meeting the needs of the state,” Garcia of New America says. “There are programs for STEM teachers and other shortage areas.”

Address barriers to entering the profession.

As the cost of college rises, many teachers take on considerable debt to earn a degree. But in states such as Illinois, Minnesota and Tennessee, candidates are eligible to receive financial support through GYO programs.

“While loan forgiveness programs do exist, these are retroactive and so don’t do much to solve the debt issue in the short term,” Garcia says. “By providing financial assistance upfront, teachers prepared via GYO are able to graduate with less debt, which is an important consideration given that in some states they may only be earning $40,000 a year starting out.”

Examples of Programs

GYO programs vary in each state or district, as does the time they take to complete.

For instance, once GYO Illinois candidates have applied and been accepted to the program, they are eligible to receive up to $25,000 in a state-funded loan to cover costs associated with attending either a public or private teacher preparation program in Illinois. Loans are forgiven after a graduate has taught in a hard-to-staff school or position for a minimum of five years. Otherwise, the loan has to be repaid.

Participants receive a one-on-one coordinator who helps them navigate higher education challenges, including providing additional information about other forms of financial aid.

“We understand that if there’s a nontraditional candidate re-entering university life, sometimes the tuition forgiveness isn’t the totality of the need,” says David Castro, director of partnership sustainability at GYO Illinois. “Our coordinators really go beyond what a typical college advisor would provide. If our candidates are expressing issues around housing or employment, we will help them and secure some of those resources via partnerships we have throughout the city or state.”

As a way to build community, participants also meet with other GYO candidates once a month for discussions on topics like incorporating restorative justice practices, de-escalation and culturally relevant pedagogy in the classroom.

“We want to ensure that all of our candidates, regardless of what university they go to, which have varying curriculum, will have exposure to content that is important to our communities,” Castro says. “We think this will make them stronger teachers in a city that has a predominately Black and Latinx population.”

Some GYO programs focus on introducing high school students to the teaching workforce. For instance, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia launched the Teachers for Tomorrow program for juniors and seniors in high school interested in education.

Students can earn dual-enrollment credit through Northern Virginia Community College, receive teaching experience before college and explore careers in the teaching profession. Participants then interview for an opportunity to receive a guaranteed job offer or letter of intention to work at an FCPS school, contingent on their completion of a teacher preparation program and student teaching hours.

Each GYO program recruits differently, with many schools relying on teachers and guidance counselors to identify students who’ve expressed interest in becoming an educator. Details about GYO programs are typically available online through school district or state websites.

“They are fantastic programs and I think we are going to continue to see an incline in these programs not only in the education scope but outside of education as well,” says Ashley Johnson, senior talent acquisition specialist at FCPS.


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