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Colleges prep for launch of new STEM teacher prep program

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Representatives from six Alabama universities met in Montgomery recently to share with the state board of education their plans to roll out their own UTeach programs, a STEM teacher accreditation and retention program aimed at putting a dent in the ongoing teacher shortage.

Along with the rest of the country, Alabama has been struggling with teacher shortages for years, particularly teachers with degrees in STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The University of South Alabama for instance saw just 10 STEM graduates in 2018, according to USA Associate Professor Christopher Parrish.

The accreditation and retention program known as UTeach was developed in Austin, Texas, and allows for college students earning STEM degrees to also earn teaching credentials, with no extra class time required. Program graduates will then not only have their degree in whatever STEM focus of study they chose, but teaching credentials as well.

Coupled with economic incentives in Alabama for STEM teachers to work in understaffed areas, allowing them to make $20,000 more per year in some cases, lawmakers – who allotted $4.5 million in next year’s education budget for UTeach programs – are hoping the investment will be worth it.

Starting teachers with bachelor’s degrees earn about $43,358 in Alabama. The TEAMS Act, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2021, gives math and science teachers an additional $15k in pay per year, plus an additional $5k for those who teach in “hard-to-staff schools.”

According to internal data from UTeach, 88% of students who complete one of the 57 UTeach programs across the country end up as teachers, and 87% are still teaching four years later.

“That is an astounding statistic because a lot of times, a lot of the fast-track programs to get more science and math teachers out there, those teachers stay two to three years,” said Lee Meadows, executive director of the Alabama STEM Council, the body responsible for monitoring the program here.

“That’s one thing that I’m excited about, the state of Alabama is making this $4.5 million a year investment; when you have an 84% retention rate that they’re going to spend at least four years in the classroom, that’s a really wise investment.”

Lee Meadows, executive director of the Alabama STEM Council, speaks during a July 11 meeting of the Alabama Board of Education.

Meadows also ran the UTeach program at the University of Birmingham, which launched in 2013, the only such program in the state.  It graduates 30 to 40 highly qualified mathematics and science teachers each year, according to the program’s own data.

But at the state education board meeting Tuesday, six other colleges shared with the board a few details on their proposed UTeach programs, which could be approved at the board’s Aug. 10 meeting.

Were the board to ultimately decide to move forward with all six universities, something State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey told Alabama Daily News was more than likely, Alabama would then have the single-highest concentration of UTeach sites in the nation per capita.

Most universities have already started recruiting students to their UTeach programs, with minor differences between them outside of course names and other minor details. Some universities, such as Alabama A&M, will be targeting certain groups more directly, according to Lena Walton, Alabama A&M dean for college of education and behavioral science.

“Our program focuses on the most vulnerable students that are coming through Alabama A&M, and so we are recruiting from every section, every area, and we’re also encouraging the people we are recruiting to stay in Alabama,” Walton said.

Universities Estimated number of UTeach STEM graduates after four years
Alabama A&M 100
Athens State 100
Auburn 200
Auburn University at Montgomery 100
South Alabama 30
West Alabama 20-40

As far as how to keep those UTeach program graduates in the state, Mackey said efforts were still being explored as to how to best keep retention rates high.

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