TAMPA — As a college financial aid director, Alisha Nesbitt came across a lot of high school graduates who still showed little interest in school.
So one day she decided to leave behind her seven years in the business so she could get to them earlier and fire them up — about math, as a middle school math teacher.
With a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in business administration, Nesbitt entered the special Hillsborough County school district program that recruits college graduates who have degrees other than education to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Now, in her second year of teaching at Turkey Creek Middle School in Plant City, Nesbitt is enjoying her new career.
“In my former career, I was dealing primarily with adults,” said Nesbitt, who teaches special education and gifted math to seventh- and eighth-graders. “Now I’m dealing with kids day in and day out.”
The district began offering the program, called Science and Mathematics Accelerated Readiness for Teaching, in 2009 with help from a $2.25 million U.S. Department of Education grant. The goal was recruiting 250 professionals like Nesbitt to teach math and science in county middle and high schools.
But finding prospective teachers to complete the rigorous program has proven difficult. Now in its fifth and final year of recruiting, it has led to the hiring of just 100 STEM teachers.
Scott Richman, who oversees the program as the district’s supervisor of professional development, estimates that about half of the original goal will be reached by the fall. He hopes to hire 30 new teachers for next school year to bring the total amount of SMART teachers to 130.
“It has been an issue to find math and science teachers,” said Richman, who went to school to be a veterinarian, but decided to teach instead. “The standards to become a teacher are very high. They realize ‘it’s not for me’ and that’s OK. We only want the best people.”
SMART was launched as part of a national movement to put more accomplished STEM teachers in classrooms across the country to get students interested in those subjects.
Through 2018, the United States is projected to have 2.4 million STEM job openings, according to the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Schools are turning to STEM professionals who want to teach because the University of South Florida and other colleges of education aren’t producing enough math and science teachers, said Larry Plank, Hillsborough’s director of K-12 STEM education.
“We get a lot of elementary teachers coming out of USF and not a lot of middle school math and science teachers,” he said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama launched the “100K in 10” initiative, which aims to provide classrooms with 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021.
Hillsborough recently joined in, as one of seven school districts across the country, with the goal of training and retaining 3,000 effective K-12 STEM teachers.
The district replaces about 10 percent of its science and math teachers each year compared to the overall teacher replacement average of 5 percent, Plank said.
Tough as it is to keep STEM teachers, at least 90 percent of those who go through the SMART program stay after their first year of teaching.
The program allows teachers to become certified in one year as opposed to the two years it takes those who opt to gain certification through the traditional alternative certification track.
SMART teachers also receive a $2,000 scholarship and are reimbursed for testing fees after three years of teaching. They also are paired up with a mentor for the first two years on the job.
Those interested must submit an application and take a subject-area exam and general knowledge test, as well as a series of classes. Teachers are reimbursed for the test fees after three years of teaching.
Last year, just 50 of the 220 people who attended eight SMART information sessions ended up applying to teach math or science in the district.
Turkey Creek teacher Nesbitt said that’s because the SMART program isn’t for everyone. It takes time and a real drive to become a teacher.
“It’s very demanding,” she said. “On top of learning the content and different ways of teaching it along the way, I’m making significantly less than I was before.”
But for Nesbitt, it’s all been worth it. She says teaching is definitely the career for her.
“I love teaching and I love to interact with the kids.”