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Program to recruit minority teachers expands to Gainesville

Yadira Hernandez, a junior pursuing a degree in elementary and special education at the University of North Georgia, acts as a paraprofessional at Myers Elementary School in Gainesville, Georgia. She talks to Ethen Byrd about the book "The Contest between the Sun and the Wind."

In 2017, seven University of North Georgia (UNG) students signed up for a new program in the College of Education and would become teachers in Hall County Schools.

Through the Realizing Inspiring Successful Educators (RISE) undergraduate program, the school district funds the tuition of its heritage Spanish-speaking graduates who enroll in UNG's teacher education program. UNG then supplements any additional needs such as calculators, books and other supplies.

The students work as paraprofessionals with English learners in Hall County elementary schools. Upon graduation, they will receive a job offer from Hall County Schools.

Nearly two years later, the RISE program is considered a success. It has grown to 24 students and expanded into a parallel program with Gainesville City School System, said Dr. Sheri Hardee, dean of the College of Education.

"Once we had the RISE program working, some students who graduated from Gainesville High School asked to participate in the program," Hardee said.

She said UNG and Gainesville City School System officials met and agreed to collaborate on a similar program with two new caveats. The newly named Aspiring Teacher Program (ATP) would recruit diverse students such as African-Americans, Asians and other minority groups. Students also agreed to teach for at least five years after graduation.

Four UNG students already enrolled in the College of Education entered into the new program. That is just the beginning.

"We are looking at some grants to pay for a director to run the program because we want it to grow," Hardee said. "We are going to have to put a limit on the applicants because students in high schools are already asking about it."

The program is a current hit with UNG students.

Yadira Hernandez, a junior pursuing a degree in elementary and special education, said the program offers her financial relief.

"It pays for my tuition, books and materials," said Hernandez, who was raised by a single mom.

Melissa Silva, a senior pursuing a degree in Spanish literature and language, said the program has solidified her decision to teach and narrowed her grade preferences. That will come in handy for Silva, who will be the first to graduate from RISE in summer 2019.

"I want to be an upper-level teacher like middle school or high school," Silva said. "Elementary school students have a limited attention span compared to upper level students."

Silva and Hernandez, both from Gainesville, Georgia, said as heritage Spanish-speakers they connect with the students not only through the language but culture and tradition.

"If they tell me they really don't understand a concept, I tell them, 'Yes, you do.' Then I break it down for them in Spanish and relate it culturally," said Silva, who is a paraprofessional at South Hall Middle School. "Then they have that 'a-ha' moment and grab pencils and write it down."

Yadira said through the classroom she can have an impact in her hometown.

"Growing up, I wanted to make a difference in people's lives," the UNG junior said. "By becoming a teacher, I realized that I could make a difference in not just one person's life but in many."

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