To help reduce the demographic disparity between students and teachers, Polk County Public Schools has partnered with the University of South Florida Polytechnic to actively recruit and provide scholarships to future male and minority school teachers. The $12.1 million funding comes from Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion U.S. Department of Education competition grant designed to spur innovation and reforms in state and local district K-12 education.

Called Project PRIDE (Planning and Rewarding Instructional Diversity in Education: Building the Future One Minority Teacher at a Time), the program will recruit, select, matriculate, graduate, and place at least 42 well-trained, highly effective teachers in high-poverty/high-minority elementary schools in Polk County.

“Minorities are underrepresented in the classroom, not with students, but with teachers,” said Dr. John Liontas, director of the Division of Education at USF Polytechnic and principal investigator on the project.

“Without a significant infusion of minority teachers, the student-teacher racial/ethnic disparity, if remaining unaddressed, will only become more exacerbated in the years ahead.”

The three-year $1.2 million grant began Nov. 15 for the first year of the project. Partners include USF Poly’s Division of Education, Polk County Public Schools, and Polk State College.

The project will offer financial support for students to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from USF Poly in return for a promise to teach in a Polk County elementary school one year for each year of financial support received.

The value of adult role models is well established, said Dr. Tom Freijo, measurement and research instructor at USF Poly and co-principal investigator on Project PRIDE.

“In Polk County, as in many school districts across the country, there is a large difference in the demographic makeup of elementary school students and their teachers,” he said. “For instance, it is possible that a male student, a black student, or a Hispanic student will go through elementary grades without encountering a teacher who shares his or her demographic characteristics.

“By actively recruiting prospective teachers from underrepresented demographic groups, preparing them to be teachers, and placing them in high-need schools, Project PRIDE will make large strides toward assuring that all students will have an opportunity during elementary school to see ‘someone who looks like them’ at the front of the classroom.”

According to Liontas, the influx of students who do not speak English at home, along with the lack of at least a similar increase in the number of minority teachers, has created a rift in programs that aim to improve student success rates.

“In this country, more than 90 percent of recent immigrants come from non-English speaking countries, and between the years 2030 and 2050, school-aged children now labeled minorities will be the majority in U.S. schools,” he said.

“Polk County-the eighth largest county in Florida with approximately 2,000 square miles, and one of the largest concentrations of population in the southeast with more than 7.5 million people living within a 100-mile radius-has had a population growth of nearly 25 percent from 2000 to 2010. During that time, the minority black and Hispanic populations have seen an even more dramatic growth of nearly 36 percent and 132 percent, respectively.”

Liontas stressed that the number of minorities in Polk County schools will continue increasing.

“Project PRIDE will help lessen the difference,” he said. “Mostly, we want to greatly reduce the disparity between minority students and teachers who look like them.”

The research team at USF Polytechnic’s Center of Research, Policy Analysis, and Evaluation will conduct both a process evaluation and a product evaluation to measure the project’s overall impact under a separate contract for the school district. In addition, the evaluations will help potential teachers meet high standards through supplemental professional development workshops held for participants each year of the project before they are placed in schools.

Project PRIDE aims to recruit a pool of at least 90 minority applicants to the program, at least half of whom will be males; select from the pool of applicants the highest qualified 45 applicants, at least half of whom will be males; matriculate 45 program participants in USF Poly’s elementary education program, at least 42 of whom will graduate and be eligible for Florida Department of Education certification; and place at least 42 program participants in high-poverty/high-minority elementary schools in Polk County.

According to Freijo, Project PRIDE also mirrors key polytechnic concepts.

“Part of the unique mission of a polytechnic university is to bridge the gap between what is often seen as the ‘ivory tower’ of academia and the real needs that exist in institutions and businesses in the community,” he said. “USF Polytechnic’s Project PRIDE faculty and administrators, in concert with administrators and teachers from Polk County public schools, will frame solutions to a very real problem.”

Results of the program will be presented as a model for improving education at local, regional, state, and national conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals and online venues.

Dr. Naomi Boyer, an author of the Project PRIDE proposal and Polk State’s assistant to the vice president for special projects, said Polk State will identify qualified, promising students and assist them in applying to Project PRIDE. In doing so, Polk State will create a pipeline of students from which USF Poly will select participants.

“Polk State continues to work with other educational institutions in our community to provide access to quality higher education,” said Boyer, who also represents Polk State on the Project PRIDE executive team. “We are pleased to identify local qualified candidates to participate in the program as a partner with USF Polytechnic and Polk County Public Schools.”

Dr. Sherrie Nickell, superintendent of Polk’s public schools, praised USF Poly’s Division of Education for partnering with the school district and endorsed the highly supportive design of the teacher recruitment and training project.

“We value having teachers who came up through our own system, who want to keep their families here and give back to the community’s children,” she said. “This plan will give us an opportunity to give these teachers an excellent place to work and benefit from their insights and caring.”

Denny Dunn, the school district’s interim assistant superintendent for human resources, will manage the district’s contracts with the university.

For more information contact Thomas Hagerty  863.667.7077,