One of the major focuses of the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative was to improve the state of public education in the city by attracting and retaining qualified and certified teachers.

Earlier this month, the first initiative to do that, which was dubbed Teach Pine Bluff, was announced.

“Teach Pine Bluff offers credentialing and ... salaries for teachers, stabilization of the district’s instructional staff, and most importantly improves the academic experience for students,” Ryan Watley, the CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said.

“While many communities offer scholarship incentives to recruit and retain students into their districts, we are confident a highly trained instructional staff will equate to high performing students that qualify for existing national scholarships.”

As a part of the public-private partnership with the City of Pine Bluff, a total of $690,000 has been designated for this program, with all the money coming from private donations from the business community. Those funds will finance master’s degrees for a minimum of 30 teachers.

The initiative was the result of work by the Educational Alliance, which is composed of the superintendents of the Dollarway, Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel School Districts, along with the director of the Arkansas River Educational Services Cooperative, who serves as chairman of the alliance.

“It is the consensus of the Alliance that an increase in the number of certified teachers will reverse the negative academic impact of long term substitute teachers, stem the loss of practical teaching skills and provide a pool of candidates to replace 45 to 65 teachers annually as a result of retirement, death and attrition,” Go Forward Pine Bluff said in a document outlining the program.

According to the document, the program will offer currently certified teachers full tuition scholarships toward obtaining a master’s degree, which must be obtained from either the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock or the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

“The Educational Alliance chose these institutions due to their proximity to Pine Bluff and the degree programs offered,” the Go Forward document said. “Together, the pipeline of teachers with master’s degrees will allow the school districts to accomplish the goals of the Teach Pine Bluff initiative while fueling the respective education departments with an additional incentive to attract undergraduate students to the profession.”

Teach Pine Bluff will offer a minimum of nine slots per year, three for each district, for each of the next three years. Teach Pine Bluff fellows will be required to obtain their master’s degrees within four years and must commit to a minimum of three years in the same district following the completion of the degree. The financial assistance will be on a reimbursement basis following each completed semester.

For teachers who already hold master’s degrees, Go Forward Pine Bluff will provide grants to cover the initial examination costs of becoming a nationally certified teacher.

That training is currently being offered by the Arkansas River Educational Service Cooperative. Applicants will be required to complete all training and test modules with a letter from the Coop Director acknowledging successful completion, and provide evidence that a majority of their students consistently achieve above average standardized test scores and classroom grades (letter grade of B) in the content area for three years.

Teachers who pass the national exam must commit to teaching four years in the same district during the time the funding is approved.

“The Education Alliance has the brain trust to continue developing initiatives such as Teach Pine Bluff that will provide us our best chance at altering the education landscape of Pine Bluff, Arkansas,” Watley said. “Teach Pine Bluff is a well thought out incentive.”