A state program aimed at reducing Hawaii’s chronic teacher shortage by paying for long-term substitutes and educational assistants to gain teacher certification is struggling to fill all its openings.

Grow Our Own, a joint initiative between the state Department of Education and University of Hawaii, received $600,000 in state funding this year. That’s enough cash to fully subsidize post-baccalaureate training for 35 people who commit to teaching grades 6 through 12 at a DOE or charter school in a content shortage area for at least three years.

But as of late last week, with an Oct. 1 deadline looming, the number of applications UH received for the Grow Our Own program numbered just 23, with roughly another 50 people expressing interest in the 35 available slots.

“No matter how much marketing, is the interest just not there? That’s my worry,” Cindy Covell, DOE’s assistant superintendent in charge of talent management, said at a recent Hawaii Teacher Standards Board meeting.

Teacher Monica Eliana is the 'Grow Your Own' teacher/candidate at Waiau Elementary.
Monica Eliana, a teacher at Waiau Elementary School, participated in the Grow Our Own program in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The third year of teaching is when retention levels in Hawaii begin to dramatically drop, according to Covell. Each year, the DOE sees the need for roughly 1,000 highly qualified teaching personnel. It began the 2018-19 school year with 521 teacher vacancies and 508 spots filled by emergency hires, or those with a bachelor’s degree but no teacher’s license.

State education officials hope to begin to put a plug in the shortage through programs like Grow Our Own.

State Sen. Michelle Kidani, who championed the program in 2017, saw potential in the large network of long-term DOE substitutes and educational assistants who want to teach full-time in Hawaii but don’t have the proper credentials.

The price tag of a post-baccalaureate certificate in education at UH is $17,000.

The Grow Our Own certificate program, which lasts three semesters, is set to begin a new round in spring 2020. Initially aimed at DOE employees, it is now open to all Hawaii residents and delivered through a blend of online and in-person learning at UH Manoa.

The program has been propped up by $600,000 in each of the three years of its existence. Another $600,000 appropriation has been secured for the 2020-21 fiscal year as well.

But the relatively low number of applications this year, as well as the dip in participation the program saw after its first year, raises questions of whether there is a lack of interest, a marketing deficiency, or something else — despite the attractiveness of such a program.

“I’ve never seen anything like this (option), and I’ve lived in three states,” said Charlotte Frambaugh-Kritzer, associate professor of the secondary education program at UH Manoa.

The inaugural cohort of Grow Our Own candidates, who just graduated this past spring, numbered 32. According to a UH report, there were funds left over even in the first year, so Grow Our Own tuition support was offered to four people outside the program, who agreed to repay the funds after three years of serving in the DOE.

There were 24 participants in the second cohort, which began last spring, according to the UH College of Education. While the program reached 15 substitute teachers its first year, it got only five such candidates its second year.

The decline in participation occurred even as the university expanded the parameters of the program. While Grow Our Own was initially open to applicants interested in teaching math, science, English and world languages, it has now expanded to art and theater.

In addition to expanding to non-DOE employees, it is also now open to people pursuing a master’s degree in secondary education.

Despite casting a wider net, interest levels haven’t seen a huge bump.

“We try to get the information out as best we can, using the resources at our disposal,” said Nathan Murata, dean at UH Manoa’s College of Education. Those channels include television, radio and newspaper advertising as well as relying on word of mouth.

“The big push now is to go directly to principals in all the schools,” Murata added. “That way, the principals can promote it with their emergency hires.”

Murata acknowledges that in its first year, there was a last minute push to get the word out about Grow Our Own, and that he expects the same last minute surge of applications this year.

The UH system is responsible for the statewide media campaign known as “Be a Hero, Be a Teacher” to promote Grow Our Own. The DOE awarded a $100,000 contract to UH to administer the campaign, covering the time frame of September 2019 through August 2021.

This is in addition to the $50,000 contract the department awarded to UH to advertise the program from August 2018 through June 2019.

Funding for this marketing campaign is separate from the $600,000 appropriation for actual tuition support.

Murata said he’s talked to some long-term DOE substitutes who said they’re perfectly content remaining in that role without the additional training needed to become a licensed teacher.

“Sometimes, you give people an opportunity for tuition support and sometimes people take advantage of it and others choose not to,” he said. “They’re really not interested in getting anything full-time.”

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