Fulton School System interns for the 2019-20 school year gathered at the New Teacher Celebration in July. They are among 71 interns participating this year in the Fulton FirstSTEP program.

An innovative program to recruit and retain top teachers enters its second year with 71 teacher interns embedded in Fulton County schools for the 2019-20 school year.

The goal of the district’s FirstSTEP (Student Teacher Education Program) is to transition these interns into full-time teachers, with a year of classroom experience and lessons learned from mentor teachers.

“We want [our interns] to start their career with us and stay,” said Marsha Francis, PhD., program manager for FirstSTEP.  “[The program] identifies teachers before they enter the labor market with the expectation they will choose to remain with Fulton Schools at the end of their internship.”

The 71 interns this school year come from six local colleges and universities — Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, Spelman College, the University of West Georgia, and the University of Georgia. The interns receive a $3,000 stipend for the 9-month internship, and the promise of a full-time contract upon successful completion.

The success of the FirstSTEP program was evident based on last year’s pilot program, said Francis, who spent two years crafting the innovative approach to the traditional student teaching experience. Of the original group of 41 interns, 35 accepted offers to continue with Fulton Schools this year, exceeding the program goal of 80 percent retention.

 “Last year was an exciting inaugural year, and I was so tickled to see a large group of our former interns/now first-year teachers at the New Teacher Celebration [in July],” Francis said.

She noted the district has made some enhancements to the FirstSTEP program this year based on feedback from the pilot year. These changes include expanding the number of participating schools, implementing periodic “lunch and learn” opportunities, and placing at least two interns together in a school so they can learn and grow together.

Francis is also excited about the involvement of the University of Georgia which is participating on a trial basis this year.

“Distance can be a factor for university supervision, but the teacher intern is a graduate of Fulton County Schools and [expressed interest] so her faculty agreed to try out the partnership,” Francis explained.

With 17 school districts in Metro Atlanta all competing for a dwindling pool of teachers, creating a pipeline of teacher candidates is critical, she said. A program, such as Fulton’s FirstSTEP, which develops effective teachers ready for day one, is even more beneficial.

“FirstStep is a staffing solution. We want [our interns] to start their career with us and stay,” Francis said.  “[The program] identifies teachers before they enter the labor market with the expectation they will choose to remain with Fulton Schools at the end of their internship.”

Ron Wade, Fulton Schools’ chief talent officer, said the district must fill nearly 600 positions for the 2019-20 school year with the goal of having 6,850 teachers in place by the start of school Aug. 12. The FirstSTEP program is a key component in filling some of those vacancies.

Francis said other districts are taking note of Fulton’s FirstStep and reaching out for more information on how to implement it in their areas. To share best practices, Francis has made presentations at the state and national level, including at the Georgia Association of School Personnel Administrators, the National Association for Professional Development Schools and Association of Teacher Educators. 

“I’ve heard of plans in other districts to create similar programs, and we are proud to lead this work as is it makes complete sense for all student teachers to have such an in depth learning experience which will ultimately make them more prepared for their first-year, first day, first bell,” Francis said.

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