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COLLINSVILLE — A lot has changed in the 25 years Shawn Geppert has taught early childhood at the Collinsville Area Vocational Center.

The program started with teaching parenting skills to adults while high school students minded their toddlers. Focus then shifted toward helping students develop the skills to become teachers, daycare providers, social workers or nurses.

In the next year, the education program at Collinsville High School is going to evolve even more. The district is expanding its education offerings to include kindergarten through 12th grade students in hopes of addressing the nation-wide teacher shortage — and, hopefully, draw alumni back to teach future Kahoks.

"Grow Your Own" programs have become increasingly common as some school districts struggle to fill positions or diversify their staff. Collinsville CUSD 10 is taking the concept a step further by offering scholarships to students to pursue education in college and, eventually, assisting those who come back to teach in their home district assistance with loan repayment.

Superintendent Brad Skertich said the idea to expand educational course offerings came out of the district's diversity and equity committee.

"One of the things that was very obvious was the diversity of our staff did not mirror the diversity of our students," Skertich said. " ... When students see themselves in their books and in their classrooms they perform better. It's just one of those things we need to do a better job of in Unit 10.

"And it's not just Unit 10, it's across the country. Teachers of color and of diverse backgrounds are very minimal. We need to try to break down those barriers."

Like many school districts, Collinsville's teaching staff skews heavily white: 92.5% of teachers were white in 2020, while only 56% of the student body was white, according to data from the Illinois Report Card.

To help ensure the program is actually diversifying the teaching force, Skertich said the rubric used to grant scholarships would prioritize students of color and those living in poverty.

The recipients of the Kahoks Teaching Kahoks scholarships will be awarded $1,000 per year toward their college expenses for four years, with the first awards being given in April.

In total, the district's goal is to award between $12,000 and $16,000 in scholarship money per year. Because the scholarship can be renewed annually, CAVC Director Joe McGinnis said the district would be able to maintain contact with the students until they're ready to start applying for jobs.

To be sustainable, Skertich said the district is looking to raise $300,000. They're about a third of the way there, having received $25,000 through Ameren Illinois as well as donations from current and retired teachers and local families.

In addition to the new scholarship program, Collinsville is adding two new courses to its vocational center next school year: teaching as a profession and an education practicum.

"They'll really get the meat and potatoes of what they want to do, if they want to become an educator," McGinnis said. " ... Our view on the vocational center is preparing our students for a career and giving these students an opportunity to know what that career can look like and a glimpse into what that work is."

Hands-on experience can be critical to helping high schoolers decide what they want to do after they graduate. Collinsville senior Hanna Leatz said she signed up for the early childhood class this year because she enjoyed her job working with younger children at the YMCA.

"I started working and I thought, 'I could see myself doing this,'" she said.

Leatz has only been in the class for a few weeks, but she said it is fulfilling to know that the 2- through 5-year-olds she is working with are learning and growing and excitedly telling their parents what they do each day.

McGinnis said he expects between 35 and 55 students to enroll in the education classes each year. The CAVC serves students from eight other high schools besides Collinsville.

For Geppert, the classes serve as a chance for students to get a deeper understanding of how the job works and whether it's a good fit for them. Sometimes her students realize they don't have the personality for the job or don't enjoy working with children the way they expected. At least this way, she said, they know before they already have two years of undergraduate courses under their belt.

Already, former students have come back to Collinsville to teach. Geppert said she knew at least four.

"If we can have Collinsville graduates teaching future graduates, that's the best thing we could have happen for our district," Skertich said. " ... Kahoks teaching Kahoks is where we want to go."

This article originally ran on pantagraph.com.

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