BRUNSWICK, Ga. - Kristin Wallace says she's not sure who's learning more - her or her pupils at Burroughs-Molette Elementary School.
"It's fun to see them smile and learn things. Like one didn't say 'cereal' the first day, but now says 'cereal, please.' I just love working with them, and we're learning together," said Ms. Wallace, who teaches five mentally challenged children in kindergarten through second grade.
Ms. Wallace will celebrate her one-month anniversary as a teacher Sept. 13. She is the first graduate of the Glynn County school district's innovative Grow Your Own Teacher program.
The twofold Grow Your Own Teacher program, developed in 1994, is designed to encourage both students and nonteaching staff members to become educators by providing scholarships to help offset college tuition.
"Kristin is an important role model. She's a person that the children can relate to because she grew up here and has chosen to come back," said Rebecca Cooper, the school district personnel director.
"She comes from a family of educators. ... That's important, too, because these days many parents don't encourage their children to become teachers. It's a dying tradition."
In exchange for a one-time $1,000 scholarship, recipients agree to teach in Glynn County public schools for at least three years after graduating and earning their teaching certification, Ms. Cooper said.
"We are starting to see the fruits of our labor. Kristin was our first, but we've awarded four others since then and those students are working toward their degrees," Ms. Cooper said.
The program is among the first of its kind in Georgia. Similar concepts offering incentives to nurture would-be teachers are being used throughout the state, education officials said.
"We started this program to be proactive because we realized that a teacher shortage was looming larger and larger in Georgia," Ms. Cooper said.
Glynn County and other Georgia school districts must compete with systems in states as far away as Texas for teachers, particularly those in critical-need areas: math, science, special education and foreign languages.
Last year, Georgia hired more than 10,000 teachers, twice the number of education school graduates produced by the state's colleges, according to state Department of Education statistics.
State education officials project that Georgia schools will need 13,500 more teachers by the 2004-05 school year and 18,500 by 2009-10.
Ms. Cooper said the first phase of the Glynn County program focuses on pupils. Each school in the district has a Grow Your Own Teacher Club.
"It makes children aware of teaching as a career and shows them the importance of learning and teaching to other professions because you have to have a teacher before you can become a doctor or lawyer," Ms. Cooper said.
High school students who meet academic eligibility requirements and plan teaching careers can receive one of the program's scholarships, she said. Ms. Wallace used the $1,000 scholarship toward her tuition.
"It might not seem like much, but it helped a lot," Ms. Wallace said. "And having a guaranteed job after graduation was wonderful, especially since I wanted to come back here anyway."