School superintendents from across the Tampa Bay region, along with other community leaders and stakeholders, met virtually Friday morning to voice their concerns about the University of South Florida’s plans to phase out undergraduate programs at its College of Education.
“The need for teachers in the community is great,” said Stacy Baier, the CEO of Pinellas Education Foundation, the moderator of Friday’s event, which attracted more than 230 attendees. “At a time when much discussion if universities are graduating students with employable majors, no question a teaching degree leads directly to a job.”
One by one, superintendents from across the region, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties, talked about the importance of undergraduate teacher education programs at USF and why it’s so crucial they continue to be provided.
Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County Schools, said 30 percent of the teachers hired in his district each year come from USF.
“Not having the undergraduate program at USF is going to be, I’ll stop short of the word ‘devastating,’ but it’s going to have an extremely negative impact on all of us,” he said.
Those thoughts were echoed by other superintendents, including Addison Davis from Hillsborough County.
“The decision to phase out the College of Education will have an everlasting effect not only on Hillsborough County but the entire region,” he said, noting that he also hires a large number of USF graduates each year. “It will essentially send our area’s most talented future teachers to other communities and away from our local districts.”
USF officials announced the plans to phase out undergraduate programs and shift the focus to graduate education Oct. 15. Since then, they’ve repeatedly pointed to declining enrollment programs as a main reason for phasing out its undergraduate programs. According to USF data, undergraduate enrollment has dropped from 2,893 to 1,066 over the past decade. At the same time, USF is facing nearly $37 million in budget cuts over the next nine months, and the College of Education will experience a $6.8 million financial reduction over the next two years.
At the time of the announcement, Provost Ralph Wilcox assured that students currently enrolled in the college will be supported on their path to graduation, and pointed out that there are avenues for students interested in pursuing education degrees including attending state colleges or going through alternative certification programs.
Those points don’t hold much water for Dunedin Elementary School principal Kerry Wyatt, a USF graduate who participated in the meeting. She said that overwhelmingly, the best teachers she has are the ones who come through four-year degree programs – many of them who are also USF alumni.
“To lose them is to derail education for my students,” said Wyatt, noting that Dunedin Elementary is a Title One school. “This would be a very unfortunate and wrong decision by USF.”
Not only would school districts and students lose out should USF eliminate its undergraduate education programs, Baier and others also pointed out the potential economic impacts the action could cause.
“This decision has far-reaching and longer term systemic issues that will result in economic loss to our community,” she said, adding that the reopening of schools has been a driver of reigniting the state’s economy and workforce development. “The demand for teachers is only going up.”
Many members of the USF community don’t disagree with the need to maintain the undergraduate programs in the College of Education. Marshall Ogletree, the executive director of United Faculty of Florida, said that the USF education faculty stands with the school districts in their desire to save this program and wants to work with them to figure out how to do so.
Judith Ponticell, interim dean of the College of Education, reiterated previous comments stressing the university has no plans to abandon teacher preparation programs, and said that the university’s plans for the future of the college are still in their early stages. She also expressed interest in working together with the school districts to share data and information that can benefit all parties.
“We’ve only just started and I’m so pleased to be able to have the chance to listen and learn from you,” she said. “Let’s have this conversion and look at where do we go to attract students to teaching as a career, and build supports that engage them and make them want to stay.”
Mike Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County School and the organizer of Friday’s meeting, said that although there has been an “element of frustration” that things have gotten to this point, he’s hopeful that the conversation will continue and school districts can work together with USF to become part of the solution and develop creative ways to the teaching profession.
“I can’t imagine the University of South Florida without a College of Education,” he said.