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State funds put into bringing ‘Best and Brightest’ to Decatur, Marengo County

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama lawmakers recently approved funding for a pilot scholarship program to get recent college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math subjects to live in the city of Decatur and the Demopolis areas. 

A supplemental appropriations bill for the 2020 budget year included $240,000 from the state education budget for the Best and Brightest Initiative that repays student loan debt up to $15,000 over five years.

The pilot program allocates $120,000 each for Decatur and Marengo County. It requires:

  • The recipient have a STEM degree from an Alabama four-year institution;
  • Be a new resident of either Decatur or Marengo County;
  • The pilot program is for five years and a recipient receive $3,000 a year.

“Decatur had an existing program and the Legislature felt it would be a good initiative to support,” Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell said. “The Legislature also wanted to have a similar pilot in the Black Belt region and Marengo County was chosen to encourage persons with STEM credentials to migrate into that region.” 

U.S. Bureau of Census information shows a decline in population in Decatur of about 1,341 people between 2010 and 2019. Marengo County lost about 2,185 residents in the same period.

“I have been concerned about the no growth areas of the state,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News recently. “Generally speaking, other than a few pockets like Auburn-Opelika, Tuscaloosa, Madison and Limestone counties, Baldwin County and some suburb counties around Birmingham and Montgomery, our state growth has flatlined or declined. 

“This plan could serve as a catalyst to recruit and keep STEM-qualified young people living in our state. In the knowledge based economy of the 21st century, building a targeted workforce that will put down roots in struggling areas and, hopefully, start a family, can pay many long term dividends. 

“Once we get them invested in an Alabama community, it will pay many times over. In fact, I’ve seen a study finding that the taxes remitted can more than offset the cost any student loan repayments. We have similar programs to get doctors and dentists to practice in rural communities that have been effective and I trust this will have a similarly positive impact.”

The Best and Brightest scholarship was launched in Decatur in 2016 and funded by private industry. 

Twenty-one people have received the competitive scholarships since then, John Joseph, executive director of the Decatur-Morgan County Entrepreneurial Center, told Alabama Daily News. 

“We have 18 that are still here. But a lot of them bring people with them,” Joseph said. A total of 31 people, including four children, now reside in Decatur because of the Best and Brightest.

Joseph said the state funding will help develop data to share with other communities about what works and does not work in the recruitment program, expand marketing and offer more scholarships.

“From the beginning, we’ve had more applications every year than we’ve had available spots,” Joseph said.

He said recipients include employees at some of the Tennessee Valley’s larger aerospace companies.

“Some are joining smaller companies as well and helping grow them,” he said.

 Educators are included if they teacher STEM subjects.

“We just recruited a teacher who is teaching in Decatur City Schools,” Joseph said.

Orr said the Best and Brightest could be expanded in the future.

“If successful in the Black Belt and/or a no-growth city like Decatur, there’s no reason it can’t be expanded to similarly struggling mid-sized cities like Gadsden, Anniston, Florence along with other Black Belt or rural counties,” he said.

Separately this legislative session, a bill from Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, would have created the Alabama STEM Council within the Alabama Department of Commerce Workforce Division to advise state leaders on ways to improve STEM-related education, career awareness and workforce development. The bill passed the House but ran out of time in the Senate when the session was shortened in response to COVID-19. However, $200,000 was allocated for the council in the 2021 education budget. Collins on Monday said she will bring the bill back in the next session, but in the meantime has encouraged Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to move forward with the initiative through an executive amendment.

Birmingham Promise, A-KEEP scholarships

The 2021 education budget includes two new scholarship programs, including $750,000 for the Birmingham Promise scholarship program. 

Birmingham Promise scholarships will assist with tuition and mandatory fees at Alabama’s public two-year and four-year colleges and universities. The amount will be determined after other financial aid has been applied. Students must meet an institution’s academic admission requirements, according to the program’s website. 

The Legislature also allocated $100,000 for the Alabama Korea Education and Economic Partnership, A-KEEP, to support a pilot project to attract Korean math and science teachers for teaching positions in Alabama schools, according to ACHE.

This program is in response to Alabama’s acute shortage of math and science teachers, a statement from ACHE said. The current pipeline of educators in the state does not have a sufficient number of students majoring in math and science teacher education.

The program will center on a collaborative arrangement between universities in Korea and Alabama. The end result would be Korean educators spending several years teaching in Alabama public schools.

The ultimate goal is to have the new educators settle in Alabama, ACHE said.

Last year, a group of state education leaders and lawmakers traveled to South Korea to discuss the possibilities.

“We do think it could lead to more teachers here, especially in math and, secondarily, science,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey told Alabama Daily News in September.

Additionally, minority teacher recruitment scholarship was increased in the 2021 budget from $500,000 to $700,000. 

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