Grow where you’re planted

Jeanette Newberry knew teaching was the right career for her after she spent a semester in an adaptive physical education class at Verona Area High School.

She mentored students with special needs in that class, something she had seen the value of first-hand as the younger sister of a person born with a disability.

The 2015 graduate had always wanted to be a part of that for other children but wasn’t sure she could afford a college degree.

“You just grew to love the kids so much,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to keep doing this.”

As the first graduate of the high school track of the Verona Area School District’s Grow Your Own partnership with Edgewood College, Newberry got her education for free.

It was a bonus, she said, that the program is from the university she wanted to attend.

Newberry graduated from Edgewood in December and finished her student teaching assignment at Sugar Creek Elementary School last Friday.

The high school track allows up to two students from a graduating class to attend Edgewood with all tuition costs covered by the district. In return, they agree to come back to teach for at least four years. It’s had nine students attend so far.

The other track pays for tuition and books for current district staff to get their teaching licenses at any accredited college. It has had 32 participants across the district.

The district started the Grow Your Own program as a way to “stop admiring the problem” of a lack of diversity in its teaching staff, district human resources coordinator Jason Olson said.

The district has a higher percentage of students of color in the district than the staff does, and as a result, he said, those students’ needs weren’t being met. Combined with a looming teacher shortage from retiring Baby Boomers and reduced participation in teacher license programs, district administrators could find recruiting for minority candidates getting more difficult.

But the program is open to any high school student willing to make the commitment. Olson pointed out that providing an opportunity to get a free education opens doors for recent high school graduates without any generational wealth, something more common in minority communities.

The program for existing staff – which started at the same time as the high school program, in 2014, gives preference to candidates who express an interest in any of the fields the district is experiencing a shortage of, such as secondary math, science, special education and bilingual education.

Olson said many of the district staff in the Grow Your Own program are already working full-time with the district, often with a second job to make ends meet, so asking them to then take out loans to earn their certifications wasn’t fair.

“Both of these, kind of removing that financial barrier, was an important consideration for us for the program development,” Olson said.

Lifting the financial burden of obtaining her teaching license made all the difference for Badger Ridge Middle School language arts teacher Andrea High, who joined the program in 2014.

High started attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison for her certification less than a year after starting with the district as a special education assistant. The program, which focused on teaching with social justice, High said, lasted for four semesters, with classes on Saturdays.

The support is more than financial. Two-Way Immersion first grade teacher Gaby Freire said the encouragement she received from district staff while enrolled in the Grow Your Own program was what helped her stick with it.

“It definitely gave me the push I needed to be motivated to go back,” she said.

Supporting staff

For both High and Freire, the Grow Your Own program provided the support they needed to earn their certifications.

Freire, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with a major in Spanish, said she had a difficult time completing the process for her certification in Spanish education.

Freire was hired in the district as a bilingual special education assistant at Sugar Creek six years ago and later began teaching with an emergency license from DPI. When she heard about the Grow Your Own program, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to get her teaching license while having the support behind her to finish it.

“If there was a time to do it, that was it,” she said.

High had started working for the district shortly after dropping out of graduate school three semesters into an MBA program while raising her infant son as a single mother.

“I was really in a mindspace in a time of my life where I was trying to figure out, really, what I wanted to do with the experience and the education I had, and how I wanted to move forward,” she said.

To help Freire, VASD human resources staff helped her figure out what the best program would be to get her teaching licenses.

Freire received her certification in Grades 1-8 after attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is attending Edgewood College for her bilingual certification. Once she turns in her portfolio, she’ll be done, Freire said.

Her building principal, Todd Brunner, helped by connecting her with other TWI educators to coach her through the process of becoming a teacher, Freire said. She found a mentor in former Glacier Edge Elementary School TWI multiage teacher Lindsey Snow, who died of breast cancer in September.

“She was a huge support and help,” she said.

High said once she started working in the district, everything just felt “right,” and the work felt reaffirming to her that education was where she was meant to be.

“Everything just started to come together,” she said. “Once I started working, immediately I felt like, ‘This is my foot in the door.’”

The Grow Your Own program was the catalyst to securing a better life for her and her son because the district invested in her, High said.

“It definitely provided support financially, and just support in general, to get through the whole process of becoming a teacher,” she said.

Relieving a burden

The Grow Your Own program’s partnership with Edgewood College began after Tim Slekar, dean of education at the university and a VASD parent, got to talking with Olson about diversity in the teacher workforce.

Being a private school, Olson said, there was less “bureaucracy” involved with creating an innovative program like Grow Your Own.

The way the program is structured, Edgewood College covers the first year of tuition for Grow Your Own. During the remaining years, Edgewood College, the district and financial aid each cover a third of the tuition.

Newberry said she wouldn’t have been able to afford to attend Edgewood College without the Grow Your Own program.

But the timing worked perfectly, as the program started when she was a senior, just in time for her to apply.

Acceptance into the Grow Your Own program not only made school financially achievable, but not having to worry about how she was going to pay tuition lifted a burden off her shoulders, allowing her to focus on her education and help out with her older brother’s special needs at home.

“With college, not only are you stressing about school, but you’re stressing about money,” she said. “That was a big stressor for me, because I was going to pay for all of my (education) … to have that taken care of is such a relief.”

The other eight candidates in the program are all students of color, helping with the district’s diversity initiative.

Newberry will be placed into the district’s pool of substitute teachers until there’s an opening she can apply for. If the district doesn’t offer her a position within a year, she’ll be released from her commitment.

Even as a student teacher, coming back to the district she spent the latter half of her K-12 education in is different to her experiences as a student, Newberry said.

She relishes in having already established connections throughout the district from her time as a student, and will sometimes turn to her former teachers for advice.

“I’m grateful to have a lot of connections to help me out,” she said. “I wouldn’t have asked for anything else.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.