U.Va., Southwest Virginia Schools Get $1.6M Grant to Aid Teaching of History

July 14, 2009 — The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a $1,654,534 grant from its Teaching American History Program to the University of Virginia, the Norton City Schools and the Southwest Virginia Public Education Consortium to train a cohort of "history specialists" to become leaders and resources for teachers throughout Southwest Virginia.

"We are very pleased that the history teachers in our region will have access to the professional development that this grant will provide," said Ron McCall, Norton City School Board chairman.

The grant will help address a shortage of qualified history teachers, said Victor Luftig, director of the U.Va. Center for the Liberal Arts, which spearheaded U.Va.'s participation in the proposal.

A study earlier this decade found that little more than a third of public high school history teachers in the United States had majored in history and had been certified to teach the subject. School divisions in areas like Southwest Virginia feel this shortage with particular intensity, Luftig said.

"Nowhere are the current economic pressures more keenly felt than in the 16 school districts that comprise the Southwest Virginia Public Education Consortium and its partner, Radford City," said Barbara M. Willis, executive director of the consortium, whose member districts serve 62,095 students, many of whom live below the poverty level.

The Center for the Liberal Arts has gathered faculty from the University's Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Corcoran Department of History, the Curry School of Education and the U.Va.-Wise Department of History, in cooperation with U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, to provide training in American history to a group of teachers who will become linchpins for improving children's knowledge throughout Southwest Virginia, Luftig explained.

The teachers' training will include skills in passing on this knowledge to their colleagues. When the model is in place, any teacher in the region who wants to access the best resources, best strategies and most current information relating to the teaching of American history will be able to turn to a colleague nearby, Luftig said.

The model is based directly on the "math specialists" program established by mathematician Loren Pitt of U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and Vicki Inge of U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

The grant is the third awarded to the consortium in cooperation with U.Va., according to Bonnie Hagerman, associate director of the Center for the Liberal Arts. The first Teaching American History grant, awarded in 2002, funded a series of courses for teachers in the region; those courses proved very popular and are credited with having contributed to improved student achievement, she said. The second, awarded last year, focused this preparation on a cohort of expert teachers; the current grant is an outgrowth of that work, meant to intensify the training and to make the model more generally available.

"The fact that we have been working with the consortium, and with teachers and administrators in it, for nearly a decade means that we can hit the ground running," Luftig said. "We want the impact of this grant to be measurable in the experiences of teachers and the learning of their pupils as quickly as possible. And we want it to be apparent how ready the University is to assist the diligent, dynamic and imaginative citizens of Southwest Virginia."

Thus far, teachers have found the program useful. "The information, resources and hands-on learning that I have obtained through these various workshops have been, and will continue to be, exceedingly beneficial to my classroom instruction and the growth of my students' interest in history," said Meredith Barlow, a teacher at Van Pelt Elementary School in Bristol. "I am excited about the professional development opportunities that this new TAH Grant will provide."

In addition to the 16 teachers currently in the program, the consortium will award another spot to each school that did not provide teachers for the previous grant's cohort or did not meet "adequate yearly progress" guidelines, as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Luftig said. This list includes schools in Carroll, Grayson, Scott, Smythe, Tazewell and Wythe counties and the city of Galax. The consortium also will award four spots to its new partner, the city of Radford.

"A total of 27 teachers will soon draw on a well-trained group of history teachers and will target school divisions that have lacked such teachers," Willis said. The consortium will encourage the selection of successful teachers of those subjects and at those grade levels with which the divisions have most struggled – Virginia studies (fourth grade), U.S. history to 1877 (fifth grade) and U.S. history from 1878 to present (sixth grade), as well as teachers in third grade, a foundational year for study of history.

"By the end of this five-year grant, we will have a cohort of specialists working with teachers who can benefit greatly from such assistance; we will have a model in place for sustaining their work over time; and we will have made the model available to schools throughout Virginia and the United States," Luftig said. "But the immediate goal is always to improve kids' knowledge of history. And this group of partners has shown that it is very effective at advancing that aim."

— By Rebecca Arrington