In a first-grade classroom at Gunpowder Elementary School, 6-year-old Juliana Taffeteani puzzled over how many centimeters long the box of staples might be.
"Take a wild guess," Julie Spause, an 18-year-old teaching intern, said in a soft, even voice. "How many centimeters do you think it is?"
Juliana pondered a bit longer, wrote, "11 cm," and then looked to her helper for confirmation. She beamed when Spause cheered, "11 on the dot. Good job!"
Working with children like Juliana and seeing them grow, Spause said, are the primary reasons that she has decided to pursue a career in teaching. Under a new Baltimore County schools program, the recent Perry Hall High School graduate is likely to do just that - in county schools.
Spause is one of three students recently awarded college scholarships from the county school system to help pursue degrees in education. In exchange, the students agree to come back to teach in some of the neediest schools in the area's largest school system.
It's an uncommon strategy for a school system - no other one in the Baltimore region is doing anything similar - but others are considering the approach as they look for ways to recruit and retain teachers.
Harford County is weighing the idea, according to school officials there. And Donald A. Peccia, who helped engineer Baltimore County's scholarship initiative, is scheduled to speak this month at a seminar for the national Council of Urban Boards of Education in New York.
"Recruitment strategies are not the same as they were 25 years ago," Peccia, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources and governmental relations, said recently. "Just recruiting at school job fairs and colleges is not going to cut it. We need to be not just creative and innovative, we need to get the best of the best."
The scholarship program is designed to help meet the growing need for teachers in hard-to-fill areas such as science, math and special education, as well as federal requirements to staff every classroom with "highly qualified" teachers. For the coming school year, nearly 900 teacher vacancies must be filled in Baltimore County classrooms, Peccia said.
"We are an import state, meaning Maryland colleges don't graduate enough teachers," he said. "This program is a way to get Marylanders to stay in Maryland. It's also an opportunity for students to give back to the communities where they grew up. These are people who have a sense of the community."
Such "grow your own" initiatives, as they are sometimes known, aren't new. For instance, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield last month launched Project RN, a program that aims to tackle a shortage of nurses by increasing faculty at area nursing schools by giving annual grants of $40,000 to nursing students to earn master's degrees. Meanwhile, the state's $4 million Workforce Shortage Student Assistance Grant Program distributes scholarships to Maryland residents studying at state colleges for careers in fields with "critical work force shortages," such as nursing, teaching and occupational therapy. In exchange, students commit to working one year in their field in the state for each year of funding they received.
Nationally, a few school systems have created recruitment programs that are aimed mostly at career-changers. For example, Illinois school officials started a program in 2000 to help parents become teachers, and last year budgeted $3 million toward the goal of adding 1,000 nontraditional teachers to low-income schools by 2016, according to Teacher magazine. In Aurora, Colo., paraprofessionals who work in the school system can earn grants to attend college and train with a mentor while earning their teacher certification.
A program similar to Baltimore County's is the Urban Academies initiative in Broward County, Fla., which provides full college scholarships and intensive academic mentoring. Since it was created in 2000, the program has placed 360 teachers in underserved schools, and 91 percent of them have stayed with the school system for more than three years, according to Teacher magazine.
The Baltimore County school system has budgeted enough money to fund 15 teaching scholarships next year. The goal is for 60 college students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, to receive funding at any given time, said Peccia.
In addition to Spause, scholarships were awarded this year to Meghan Goff, 18, from Eastern Technical High School, and Vincent Oshiro, 18, from Dundalk High School. Goff, an honor student who wants to teach math, plans to attend Salisbury University. Oshiro, who is president of Dundalk's Future Educators Association, plans to attend Baltimore County Community College for two years and then transfer to Towson University. Spause plans to attend Frostburg State University.
Under the program, students will receive $4,000 annually. The agreement requires them to teach one year in the county for each scholarship year or pay back the money.
Scholarship recipients must maintain Maryland residency, be enrolled full time in an approved teacher education program at a Maryland college, and commit to teach in a "critical need subject area" at a school with a high rate of children from lower-income families.
"So often students don't look to education as an option for a career," said Cheryl Brooks, a specialist in the school system's equity and assurance office who oversees the district's Future Educators Association. "We're trying to move toward a culture of cultivating educators. So many students deem higher-paying jobs as more rewarding. But education is one of the most rewarding ways to make a living."
An added benefit for the scholarship recipients is having a sense of "connectedness" to the communities where they will hold their first teaching positions, Brooks said.
"You'll understand the culture of where you're teaching," she said. "You'll know the obstacles and the strengths of that community."
Oshiro said that not only will he not have to worry about finding that first job out of college, but he won't have to fret over adjusting to an unfamiliar city.
"It's going to be less of a shock," said Oshiro, who wants to teach physics or math at Dundalk High School. "Coming back to where I came from is going to be cool."
At Gunpowder Elementary in Perry Hall, Spause interned this past school year with her former third-grade teacher, Alicia Lamont.
"She's already so intuitive," said Lamont, who has taught in Baltimore County schools for more than two decades. "She knows what I need before I know I need it. It's one of the greatest rewards ever to see the fruits of your labor, to see how much she has grown up."
Lamont shivers as she recalls how terrified she was during her first experience in a classroom as a college senior. Spause, who would like to teach special education, said she realizes how fortunate she is to have confirmed her interest in teaching and her ability to hold her own in the classroom before setting a foot in college.
Spause said she has learned the significance of establishing routines for children, honed her skills at maintaining control of a group of restless first-graders and discovered she has what it takes to coax a 6-year-old girl like Juliana to believe in herself.
"Ever since I was little, I have wanted to teach," Spause said. "Seeing children's minds learning in front of me is one of the most satisfying things."