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Five Harford graduates earn ‘Growing Exceptional Teachers’ scholarships with hope they return to HCPS as educators after college

Jenna Zavoyna has wanted to be a teacher since she was in elementary school —“Growing up, I spent countless hours in my basement playing ‘school’ with the neighborhood kids,” the recent graduate of Havre de Grace High School said.

As she now prepares to head to college, Zavoyna is getting a boost toward pursuing a career in education. She was one of five from the Class of 2020 who received a $6,000 Growing Exceptional Teachers scholarship from Harford County Public Schools.

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The GET scholarships have been awarded annually since 2017 five graduating seniors each year to help them complete their undergraduate degree in a high-needs area of teacher education, with the ultimate goal of receiving their teacher certification and the hope that they return to the Harford school system after college as educators.

GET scholars are not required to return to Harford County to teach after obtaining their degree and certification, although that’s certainly the hope, said Jean A. Mantegna, assistant superintendent for Human Resources for the school system.

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“If we can grow our own, that really helps us,” with recruitment and retention, Mantegna said. “They are familiar with this environment, they’re connected to the community and they want to stay here, so it’s a great fit.”

One of the requirements is that the students plan to pursue teaching careers in “critical shortage areas” identified by the Maryland State Department of Education and HCPS as English, mathematics, professional and technical education, science, special education, technology education, world language and school psychology. Mantegna said that also includes recruiting male teachers and teachers of color.

Zavoyna is planning to attend Towson University in the fall to major in elementary education/special education. Though she has wanted to be a teacher since her youth, it wasn’t until her high school years she realized special education was the right choice for her.

In 2017, she started Havre de Grace High School chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that fights for social inclusion for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The group creates buddy pairs, one person with an intellectual or developmental disability paired with someone without. Zavoyna said she learned quite a bit about the special needs community serving as the chapter president, skills she intends to take into her own classroom one day. She hopes to return to Harford County down the road.

“I am very passionate about the special needs community and can’t wait to have a classroom of my own. I was thrilled when I heard that I was a recipient of the GET scholarship," she said. “I would love to be able to come to HCPS and teach in the same community that I grew up in."

Other 2020 GET Program scholarship recipients are:

• Jayna Liebau, of Edgewood High School, attending Harford Community College in the fall and Towson University in 2022 to major in secondary education with a minor in English;

• Emma Ryan, of Harford Technical High School, attending Mount St. Mary’s University in the fall to major in elementary education/special education;

• Kayla Smith, of Havre de Grace High School, attending Towson University in the fall to major in secondary education with a minor in middle school science; and

• Alexa Warren, of Edgewood High School, attending Salisbury University in the fall to major in secondary education with a minor in English/creative writing.

Five GET scholarships have been awarded each year, starting with Harford County’s Class of 2017, and the program will end with the Class of 2021 next year. Recipients are selected by a committee and the scholarships are awarded in May each year preceding college entrance.

Next spring, the first cohort of GET scholars from 2017 are scheduled to graduate college. One of those students is Caroline Collins, a 2017 graduate of C. Milton Wright who is will be entering her senior year at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

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Collins is pursuing a degree in secondary special education and social studies education, with a certificate in autism studies.

Collins said her experience with a couple of influential teachers while attending Harford County schools is what pushed her pursuing a career in education.

“I had some really fantastic teachers and I always admired their student-teacher relationship many of my teachers had with me and my peers,” Collins said.

In addition to the $6,000 commitment made to each student, being part of the GET program also means receiving an informal mentor — an HCPS teacher or supervisor in the same specialty who regularly checks in with the scholars during their four years at college.

“It’s just an opportunity to build some relationship with our current workforce with these students, so they can start to make connections and feel connected to our school system,” said Benjamin Richardson, Senior Manager of Human Resources for the school system.

Through the first three years at college, the GET team at Harford schools has been a good resource for Collins.

“They check in on me, provide guidance, answer questions and have been very encouraging during this time,” she said.

GET scholars are also given opportunities to substitute teach in HCPS. Typically a number of college credits are required before they can apply to be a substitute teacher, Richardson said, but because the school system is invested in these students, those requirements are waived.

“Many of them have taken us up on that opportunity and are already getting in-class experience through substitute teaching opportunities, which is really great to see,” he said.

One more incentive to encourage scholarship winners to come back to teach in Harford County after graduation is a one-year advancement on the salary schedule.

“It’s not a lot, but it is a little salary incentive to recognize their accomplishments as a GET scholarship winner,” Richardson said.

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