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Education degree programs growing at local colleges
Schools offer many different options for education degree programs
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Delana Thomas works with students Edgar Perez, center, and Daniel Castro-Sixtos during a science class Friday at Lyman Hall Elementary School. Thomas is an early childhood major at North Georgia College and State University. - photo by Tom Reed

College students go into education for myriad reasons. Some choose to work with high school biology students, others with eighth-grade Georgia history buffs.

The most popular major by far at local colleges, however, is early childhood.

"Our largest undergrad major is the dual major in early childhood and special education," said Susan Ayres, associate dean for assessment at North Georgia College & State University's School of Education. "We want to develop elementary specialists who are effective at meeting a variety of needs."

North Georgia students are affiliated with one school for an entire year, almost as "junior faculty members," Ayres said. Hall County schools in the program include World Language Academy, Chestnut Mountain Elementary School, Martin Technology Academy of Math and Science and Lyman Hall Elementary School.

"We've been extremely pleased with the data we've been able to collect on these students," Ayres said. "We want our teachers to go out and be effective early on so they'll stay in the profession."

Brenau University has several endorsement programs, including English for Speakers of Other Languages. The university was applying to offer endorsements in academic coaching and online instruction, said David Barnett, interim dean of education at Brenau.

Brenau University offers undergraduate, master's and specialist degrees in education. The majors include early childhood, special education, middle grades and secondary education.

"At the undergraduate level, early childhood is always our most popular degree," Barnett said. "I think that has to do with the mindset of folks when they first think of education ... they picture in their mind that age group first. The folks that are tending toward high school have a motivation toward one academic area. They love history or math and did so as a high school student. The middle school folks are sort of a combination of the two. They like a specific academic area and want to work with children."

Brenau's education classes span campuses in Gainesville, Augusta, Norcross and Fairburn, so the partnerships with schools are in 12 county and three city school systems.

Locally Brenau student-teachers work at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School.

Gainesville State College started its Department of Education with early childhood associate's and bachelor's degrees but started expanding to include middle grades and secondary grades. There are associate's programs in those now and bachelor's degrees will be phased in over the next couple of years, said Carly Wynne, department chair.

There's been tremendous interest in those two degree programs offered sooner, but the process to get new majors approved by the Board of Regents and the school is extensive, she said.

"At this point we have more early childhood majors than anything else. The reason is we have an embedded (ESOL) reading endorsement," Wynne said. "These students are certified in pre-K through 12 to teach ESOL and remediate reading difficulties."

North Georgia offers several education majors: The dual certification, middle grades, high school grades in all content areas and a P12 program that covers music and physical education.

"We've seen a lot of growth in the past couple of years in middle and secondary education," Ayres said.

For graduate students, the school has a Master of Arts degree in teaching and a leadership specialist degree for administrators, as well as content-specific certification.

There are about 300 undergraduates and more than 200 graduate students in education programs at North Georgia.

"There's always more people doing English than science," Ayres said. "The two largest (high school content area majors) are English and history. The smallest are the sciences — biology, chemistry and physics. Our math numbers are small but are growing. I think that's due to our math department doing a good job of recruiting students."

North Georgia graduate students focus on English, history, early childhood education and art.

Ayres said the economy makes it difficult for newly graduated educators to find jobs because teachers aren't retiring at the same rate they were several years ago.

Traditionally, areas of need depend on the retirement numbers, but now clear areas of need in Georgia include science, math and special education.

"Special education requires a high level of commitment and a special passion," Ayres said. "With regards to math and science ... I think if a student is successful in math or science they might have another career option that seems more attractive for a long-term salary."

The way to address this need is to do a better job of getting kids excited about math and science at an early age, she said.

"This generation, it just breaks our hearts, is a ‘give me' generation," said Delana Thomas, a senior early childhood and special education major at North Georgia. "They don't want to dig. They want instant gratification."

She said science is the perfect way to teach students that desire to ask the why and the how questions.

"That subject, more than math and English, it's kind of self-discovery," she said.

Tim Schmitt, a senior studying early childhood and special education at North Georgia, is excited about his career change, even though it was challenging at first to go back to school.

"I was in the business world for about 25 years," Schmitt said. "I didn't feel like I was helping anybody. Most male teachers go into middle or high school, but my passion is for the younger kids ... where I feel like I make the biggest impact. There's not a lot of male role models in early childhood."

Like North Georgia, Gainesville State students spend two years in the associate's program and must apply to the bachelor's cohort, which only accepts 30 new students at a time. Once accepted, students are assigned to rotating blocks of classroom time and get the chance to work with children of different backgrounds, socioeconomic groups and levels of affluence.

"Our students have almost 1,000 hours of field experience prior to graduation," Wynne said. "They go and spend 20 hours of active observation time. They have to be on their feet, circulating around."

The field experience is different from student-teaching, where the college students are in charge of lessons and the actual education experience.

"I love being with that age group and the content they learn ... the basics, the fundamentals," said Brittany Jamison, a senior early childhood and special education major at North Georgia. "I think that material carries with them their entire lives."

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