The answer: More than $271,000 each.
While that appears to be awfully expensive, advocates of the Grow Your Own Teachers program insist those numbers are misleading and incomplete. The way they see it, Illinois put money into a long-term investment that’s on the verge of paying off with highly motivated teachers working in the most troubled parts of the state.
“This is a program worth investing in,’’ said Maureen Gillette, dean of the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University. “If the pipeline gets cut off now, we’ll never know how effective our teachers can be.’’
Grow Your Own Teachers is still alive, for now. The latest state budget includes $1 million for the program, down from $2.5 million a year earlier. But critics hope this is the last time Grow Your Own gets any state support.
“We found it to be an egregious waste of money,’’ said Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.
The program’s goal is to take people living and working in poor communities and help them get college degrees in education. Ideally, the graduates will teach in those same communities and, because of their roots there, will wind up staying for years to come.
That’s important, experts say, because there’s significant turnover among teachers in the state’s poorest schools.
People in Grow Your Own apply for whatever federal aid, scholarships and grants are available to pay for college. Then the program pays the remaining expenses. In addition, the program offers tutoring, connects students so they can help one another and provides counseling. Graduates who teach for five years in a low-income school have their GYO loans forgiven.
Because most of these would-be teachers already have jobs or families or both, they generally take only one or two classes a semester. That means it can take them much longer to finish, one reason a program that started gearing up in 2006 still hasn’t hit triple digits in graduates.
Anne Hallett, Grow Your Own’s director, said critics shouldn’t be surprised there haven’t been more graduates in an age when even traditional, full-time students often take five years to finish college. She said the program has about 300 candidates in the pipeline.
Romanetha Looper is one of the program’s success stories.
She signed up at age 38, with a husband and two children. With the program’s staff, volunteers and students to help, she graduated with a 3.8 GPA and got a job. She now teaches middle school science on Chicago’s west side and gives the students an example of someone from a rough neighborhood succeeding.
“I see the change that I make, and the kids see that I care and I love them,’’ Looper said. “I’m here to stay.’’
Grow Your Own works by setting up local partnerships consisting of a university, a school district and a community group. At the moment, there are eight such partnerships in Chicago and seven scattered across the rest of the state.
Peoria used to have a Grow Your Own partnership, but it ended because the state consistently failed to provide funding on schedule, said Laraine Bryson, president of the Tri-County Urban League. Bryson said she considered the program a success and thinks it’s still needed, in part because many Peoria students are minorities but their teachers are overwhelmingly white.
“That puts a student in a situation where they can go for years in school and never see someone who looks like them as a teacher,’’ Bryson said. “That sends a message.’’
By one measure, Illinois schools have the nation’s third-largest gap between the racial backgrounds of teachers and students. Forty-six percent of students are non-white, but only 11 percent of teachers are people of color, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.
Even some Grow Your Own advocates acknowledge problems.
Rori Carson, an assistant dean at Western Illinois University and director of the local Grow Your Own project, said the program needs to do a better job of judging how well applicants will do in college. Too many wind up dropping out or failing to qualify for teacher-education courses, she said.
Carson also said the program could do a better job of placing people in hard-to-fill specialties like special education or science, a problem that was pointed out in a 2011 review of Grow Your Own that was conducted for the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The review found that 43 percent of participants dropped out before graduating. It said better management and assessment of candidates could reduce that problem. It also recommended that Grow Your Own step up efforts to raise money from private sources.
Hallett, the head of Grow Your Own, said the program has adopted new procedures to gauge whether applicants are a good fit for the program and the academic requirements. But she also said that a high drop-out rate is to be expected when dealing with non-traditional students who may run into family emergencies, money problems or a long list of other complications.
Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said the slow process of educating non-traditional students partly explains why Grow Your Own has produced few teachers so far. But he still considers the program “a dismal failure’’ that costs too much for the results it produces.
Michael Vargas sees it differently.
The 33-year-old school security guard and father of three got his teaching degree and is looking for a job. He is convinced that his experiences will make him a strong teacher and a good example for his students. But that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Grow Your Own.
“Luck had nothing to do with me getting through school,’’ Vargas said. “It was a team effort.’’
On the Web:
— Grow Your Own: http://www.growyourownteachers.org
— IBHE review: http://tinyurl.com/88pqcjv
Follow Christopher Wills at https://twitter.com/chrisbwills