North Carolina: Elite Recruits Lead the Way
Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Asign in the hall outside math teacher Dee McKenzie's classroom says: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong." Inside, at the back of his room, another says, "Math is simple."
Mr. McKenzie, a young guy with a friendly yet intense bearing reminiscent of actor Cuba Gooding Jr., is good at communicating. The fourth-year teacher will do nearly anything to spark student interest in math. He is not above using props like a tennis ball dubbed "Mr. Tennis" to help out. Whatever works.
In many ways, McKenzie is exactly the kind of the kind of new teacher North Carolina is hoping for to bolster its teaching ranks. He applied for and received a four-year, $20,000 scholarship to pay for college for having been admitted to the state's elite Teaching Fellows program. Now he is fulfilling his half of the bargain with a minimum of four years of teaching in the state. Recently voted teacher of the year at Fuquay-Varina High School, McKenzie is today doing his usual teaching gymnastics to spark interest in Algebra among kids who might think they have little. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you are still having problems with factoring you have got to do - what?" he asks a sophomore algebra class. "Get help!" several student shout back. "And why is that?" he asks. "Because math is easy," comes the sing-song answer. "OK," he says, "let's start with today's lesson." "Are you going to use Mr. Tennis today?" one girl asks. "No I don't think so," he responds to groans of disappointment. A competitive fellows program In its 10th year, the Teaching Fellows program is getting more attention than ever as it carefully selects from among the best students in North Carolina. To even be considered, an applicant to the program must have a minimum SAT score over 1,100, a high school grade point average of 3.6, and class ranking in the top 10 percent. Those actually admitted in 1998-99 had, on average, SAT scores of 1,166, a GPA of 3.66, and were in the top 7 percent of their classes. One of the best carrots the state offers is money - $5,000 a year for those who win this prestigious four-year scholarship. In return, graduates must teach somewhere in the state for four years. The problem: Right now fewer top high school graduates are applying - threatening to dilute the quality of the program, though officials say that has not happened yet. Most worrisome, though, is that too many fellows, who are arguably among the most bright and committed teachers the state produces, are leaving teaching after their tour of duty. George Rose, principal of Fuquay-Varina High, is feeling the need to reverse the state's attrition of new teachers. "We need good teachers," he says. "I'm looking here. But there's not enough. So I'm also looking hard in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, where job markets are tight. …