Adrienne Hudson remembers vividly the year in high school she was taught by a teacher who was “not really a teacher.”
It was 11th grade English class and her school in rural Clarksdale, Miss. hired an “emergency licensed” teacher whose previous job had been at a Mississippi River casino.
“She was a nice person, but she didn’t know how to teach,” Adrienne recalls. “That impacted my life and the lives of my classmates.”
Today, Adrienne is on a mission to eliminate a severe teacher shortage in the Mississippi Delta – a problem six times worse than it was two decades ago. In 2017, Adrienne launched RISE (Regional Initiatives for Sustainable Education), a nonprofit aimed at improving educational outcomes in areas impacted by high poverty. RISE believes that begins with building teacher capacity.
“Everything we want to do to thrive as a region starts with improving our schools,” says Adrienne. “The power of a great teacher helps students overcome insurmountable odds.”
The challenge is significant.
Adrienne says the lack of qualified teachers is a root cause of low-performing schools that stifle academic progress, ultimately limiting job opportunities, which could keep Delta families locked in poverty.
According to the Mississippi Department of Education, there was a 92% decrease in people applying for a teacher’s license from 2007 to 2017, leaving a statewide shortage of 2,000 licensed teachers.
The problem is more acute in the Delta where students are 114 times more likely to be faced with a teacher shortage.
“Our teacher shortage directly correlates with our low performing schools,” Adrienne says.
RISE helps aspiring educators overcome one of the most significant barriers to the classroom – passing certification exams such as Praxis® Core, Praxis II® and Pearson’s Foundations of Reading exam, which evaluate a teaching candidate’s knowledge in math, reading, writing and other content areas.
“There is a teacher pool in our community, but we have to remove the obstacles to their success,” Adrienne says.
To support those aspiring teachers, RISE holds free Praxis ® Teacher Certification workshops in Coahoma County and has offered a two-week boot camp to prepare their clients for the test. The sessions attracted more than 100 people and provided the feedback to create a more robust approach to tackling the teacher shortage.
Teacher candidates must pass multiple examinations to become a certified educator in Mississippi. Each exam costs at least $90. For many prospective teachers, without instructional support it was like playing the lottery each time they registered for the exam.
With support from the Walton Family Foundation, RISE created a comprehensive, year-long program that assists aspiring teachers in the entire certification process.
Twenty-one teachers in the initial cohort completed all necessary testing requirements for their licenses.
“We embedded independent study strategies, test anxiety coping mechanisms, accountability partners and, most importantly, a supportive environment.”
That positive atmosphere is critical for educators who have failed previous tests, because “so much of the barrier is the fear of failing again,” she says.
RISE also mentors cohort participants through their novice teacher experience.
“Our job is to help them become great teachers and understand that teaching is not an innate quality,” she says.
Growing up in the Delta, Adrienne says she was inspired to become an educator by her own parents, both teachers.
“Students would stop us and tell us what a great impact my parents had on their lives,” she says.
After graduating from Coahoma County High School, Adrienne earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Masters of Science degree in Guidance Education and Reading. She returned to Clarksdale to teach in the Coahoma County School District and was an assistant principal for four years.
“As a teacher and administrator, I wanted to improve the things I thought should have been better when I was a student, but the teacher shortage crisis has caused much of our community’s progress to deteriorate over the last two decades.”
Too many Delta students languish in classrooms without qualified teachers and sometimes lose the equivalent of one to two years of instruction, Adrienne says.
“We see a decline in everything positive and we see an increase in the negatives,” Adrienne says.
“To have high-quality schools, you need good teachers. That’s how you break the cycle of poverty. Poverty exists, but it should not be a debilitating factor that stops our kids from being super.”
What does RISE look for in aspiring teachers?
“It’s grit. That commitment to wanting to teach so badly that they will do whatever it takes to work and fight for children,” she says.
Adrienne takes pride in seeing how RISE can improve the lives of students and the teachers who land jobs after getting certified.
“Our teachers are doubling or tripling their income. They get the chance to impact student lives, but we are also impacting their lives and their families lives,” she says.
As a Delta native and self-described “country girl,” Adrienne is deeply rooted in helping create a better future for the region’s youth.
“The power of sustainable change sprouts from grassroots. We need community engagement and empowerment,” she says. “The Delta cannot be saved by everybody from around the world. The Delta has to save itself.”