ELEVATE: Cancer victim resumes teaching dream through debt-free program


Book discussion fundraiser hopes to extend offering to more students

NORMAN, OKLA. (April 13, 2016) – Alissa Lloyd’s dream of becoming a teacher was abruptly halted when, at age 21, she discovered she had cancer. Her battle with the disease forced her to drop out of college and drained her finances. But thanks to a special program for promising teachers at the University of Oklahoma, she is back on track pursuing a lifetime of helping children.
 
“It was the week my hair started to fall out that I knew I would never be the same,” said Lloyd, who underwent months of chemotherapy. “There was one night specifically that my parents held me as I sobbed, and they cried too, of course. I was coming to terms with having a life-threatening disease.”
 
OU’s Debt-Free Teachers Program is helping education students finance their education and overcome college debt, while at the same time helping children in high-need areas in Oklahoma. Students like Lloyd can earn $5,000 per year after graduation for up to four years by making a commitment to tackle some of the state’s most challenging teaching assignments.
 
Lloyd’s most crippling low was facing the fear that she might never become a teacher. She believes, however, there was a reason she endured Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma: to help children who are also facing life struggles.
 
“It took about six months after remission to feel even halfway normal again, and that’s when a spark was lit inside me,“ Lloyd said. "I wanted to use my pain and my fear to help students with theirs. My life started over, and I became more passionate about teaching than I even knew I could be.”
 
Addressing the teacher shortage
The Debt-Free Teachers Program is an incentive for new teachers not only to embrace high-need areas but to keep them in Oklahoma. The teacher shortage in the state is most prevalent in specialized subject areas like math and science, and in rural and inner-urban areas.
 
Dr. Gregg Garn, dean of OU’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education, said the program was created in 2014 in response to graduates leaving the state immediately after receiving their degrees. 
 
Only 45 percent of OU’s PK-12 education students work in the state’s public schools after graduation, according to a September 2015 study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Figures are similar for other universities across the state with top-producing teaching-degree programs.
 
Out-of-state students who are recruited by Oklahoma universities typically do not stay in the state either. From 2010 to 2014, 18 percent of graduates from the state’s institutions of higher education originated from outside Oklahoma, but only a quarter of those went on to serve Oklahoma’s schoolchildren.
 
“We were looking at the crisis where so many of our graduates walk across that stage, and it’s the last time they’re in Oklahoma because our salaries are just so uncompetitive when you compare and contrast the surrounding states. The idea was how do we keep our best and brightest teachers to grow our local communities, to grow our state?” Garn said.
 
Only two states – Mississippi and South Dakota – have lower average teacher salaries than Oklahoma, where the average pay and benefits is $44,628, according to a 2015 study by the National Education Association. Barring any new initiatives, Oklahoma is certain to drop on that list; South Dakota lawmakers passed a $67 million measure earlier this year to raise its average teacher salary to $48,500 for fiscal year 2017.
 
Further, the AIR study projects that the number of students completing Oklahoma educator-preparation programs will decline by 22 percent over the next five years.
 
“There are a lot of different groups this program really appeals to,” Garn said, “not to say anything of the superintendents who are scrambling to hire great people. And if this keeps better candidates in their pools, they’re another group that’s been really excited about this idea.”
 
Oklahoma’s teacher shortage has been a steadily growing problem. Since July 1, 2015, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has issued 1,060 emergency certifications. Emergency certifications grant new teachers a yearlong extension to meet training and assessment requirements for certification and are only approved after a district cannot find otherwise qualified teaching candidates. The number of emergency certifications has already more than doubled since last year, and it has skyrocketed since 2012, when emergency certifications were considered a rare exception. That year, the department issued only 30 emergency certifications.
 
“We have a lot of conversations with students to say it’s not all about the money,” said Garn, who notes that with an average ACT score of 26, his students could tackle any degree program at OU. “There are some really important things in life that have very little to do with money. They have to do with helping others, needing to create a bright future for others. That makes teaching a pretty rewarding profession despite the other challenges.“
 
How the program works
Based on conversations with superintendents and principals in Oklahoma, Garn said the university has defined five teaching areas where the need for qualified teachers is the highest: math, science, world language, special education and early childhood education. Candidates may teach in any subject area if they are in rural or inner-city schools.
 
OU undergraduates are selected based on merit and financial need and must sign a legally binding document in which they agree to teach at least four years in one of the state's high-need areas. The money is made available through a Lew Wentz Foundation Loan, and teachers have six years after they receive their degrees to complete their service. Teachers who fulfill their obligation have their debt forgiven. If not, they must repay the loan with interest.
 
Garn said there has been a huge demand from students who want to participate in the program, which began in 2014. So far, 37 students are enrolled, with eight graduating in May. Nine have already completed their studies and are serving in local schools. The program is fully funded through private donations.
 
Jonathan Johnson was one of the first teachers to benefit from the Debt-Free Teachers Program. He was part of the Urban Teacher Preparation Academy, which gives additional guidance to teachers in high-need areas through specialized professional development and ongoing mentoring in Oklahoma City Public Schools.
 
Johnson, who teaches fourth grade at Stand Watie Elementary School in Oklahoma City, received $5,000, enough to pay off his college debt. He said the program made up the difference of working in a higher-paid market and has made it possible for him to return to OU for his master’s degree in education.
 
“It’s very disheartening to know that I could be making thousands more if I move just three hours away, but I really think it’s a lot of fun to see the changes you can make in the people who really need help,” Johnson said. “I want to be a good role model and a good example for them. If you’re a good teacher, you can take fourth-graders who are on a first-grade reading level and see a big difference by the end of the year.”
 
Cancer survivor Lloyd plans to graduate from OU in December with a degree in elementary education. Now 24, she is currently earning credit by serving part-time at Kennedy Elementary, a Norman school with a high percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.
 
“I have a huge, huge heart for low-income areas,” she said. “I think those kids need somebody just a little bit more. They need a few more advocates on their side.”
 
Finding funding
Garn said the idea of a “reverse scholarship” resonated with donors because they know they will receive a return on their investment.
 
Oklahoma State Regent Mike Turpen is one of those supporters. Turpen, who has chaired multimillion-dollar fundraising campaigns for Lyric Theatre and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, said the hope is to expand the program to every university in the state.
 
“Educators impact eternity,” Turpen said. “We’re trying to honor teachers, respect teachers, help teachers, and for God’s sake, keep them in Oklahoma instead of going south of the Red River.”
 
Turpen will join banker Gene Rainbolt, a longtime advocate of improving and diversifying the Oklahoma economy, at a fundraiser for the Debt-Free Teachers Program. “A Literary Evening with Gene Rainbolt and Mike Turpen” will be from 6 to 8 p.m. April. 25, at Beaird Lounge in OU’s Oklahoma Memorial Union. The two will discuss their respective biographies, Out of the Dust and Turpen Time. Free books will be given to all attendees.
 
Turpen said $6.9 million has been raised for the Debt-Free Teachers Program, but it is $3.1 million away from its fundraising goal. He hopes the April 25 event will bring in at least $100,000.
 
Alissa Lloyd sought out OU in part because she needed that financial support after medical bills made it impossible to pay tuition.
 
“I can’t have a bad day after I’ve had cancer,” Lloyd said. “I feel like I went through that pain so that I could channel it when I help children who are hurting. Having cancer has made me so much more passionate about teaching.”
 
Written by Annette Price, communications and constituent services specialist at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
 
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Above: Alissa Lloyd uses popsicle sticks to explain potential energy to fifth-graders at Kennedy Elementary School in Norman. Extensive medical bills forced her to drop out of school, but now through a new program at OU, she is earning her degree in early childhood education and looking forward to teaching in Oklahoma.
 

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A series presented by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, ELEVATE chronicles the positive, innovative and inspiring things happening in Oklahoma’s K-12 public education.
Last updated on April 25, 2016