CARBONDALE — When Alan Mather, president of the education nonprofit Golden Apple, surveyed Illinois regional superintendents about staffing shortages, he got a clear message from rural leaders: urgency.
Amid a mounting teacher shortage, in a state where local property taxes largely define school funding, rural and under-resourced schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers, leaving many rife with vacancies.
"It's clear what a dramatic need there is," Mather said. "Even after Evidence-Based Funding, there are districts that would like to offer additional classes but can't find teachers to fill them, so they haven't opened the positions."
Now, with support from the Illinois legislature, Golden Apple is launching an innovative push to train more teachers for central, western and southern Illinois, and encourage them to put down roots in communities that need them.
This summer, the inaugural Golden Apple Accelerators program will accept 50 candidates interested in rerouting their careers toward teaching.
Some will be college seniors who chose other majors, but seek to transition to education. The rest will be adult workers with bachelor's degrees ready for a career change.
Those selected will get a $30,000 stipend for education and housing as they earn their teaching licenses on an accelerated schedule, completing their coursework and a year of student teaching within 15 months, according to Golden Apple.
In return they must commit to at least four years of teaching at an understaffed school in one of five regions: The jurisdictions of the Regional Offices of Education No. 3 (in Vandalia), No. 13 (in Mount Vernon), No. 39 (in Decatur), No. 40 (in Carlinville) and 47 (in Sterling).
During and after their student teaching, Accelerators will be mentored by a fellow teacher, Mather said. They'll also be given one day off per week to complete coursework and will be guaranteed employment upon completion of the program.
In Southern Illinois, Centralia High School has already signed on to host an Accelerator, Mather said, and other schools in the Mount Vernon area are expected to follow suit.
"We are thrilled with the support from the state legislature and governor, and right now the goal is to ensure they see this as a valuable approach to addressing the teacher shortage going forward," Mather said.
That shortage is mounting in Illinois, projected to reach 20,000 educators by 2025.
With applications still open for another month, the Accelerators program has already received 118 applicants, Mather said, more than two for every available spot.
Though applications are open to anyone, most candidates hail from the communities around Vandalia, Mount Vernon, Decatur, Carlinville and Sterling, where teachers will be placed.
That's exactly what Golden Apple hoped for, Mather said.
"We don't want to be an importer or exporter of talent," he said. "Our goal is to keep these teachers in these communities, so they should likely come from the communities. We're looking for people who want to live in these communities and want to affect some change."
The program is particularly interested in candidates with backgrounds that will make them successful in high-need subjects, like special education, STEM and bilingual education, Mather added.
This year's class of Accelerators will complete their teaching coursework online and occasionally on-site, through either Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, or Blackburn College in Carlinville.
In the future, Golden Apple could partner with other universities, Mather said, including Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which has expressed interest.
Applications remain open through Feb. 20 at goldenapple.org/accelerators. Applicants may be asked to relocate if they don't live near a participating school, Mather said.