Project Grow to strengthen schools and communities in southwest AL and east MS

The University of West Alabama’s College of Education has been selected by the Kern Family Foundation for a $1.74 million philanthropic grant to fund an initiative designed to help strengthen rural education in UWA’s Black Belt footprint.

“Growing Strong Leaders & Educators of Virtue in Rural Schools and Communities” has been dubbed Project Grow and is designed to positively impact the regions of west Alabama, south Alabama, and east Mississippi that UWA serves.

“This program will transform schools and communities in rural and at-risk areas into strong, virtuous institutions of learning,” said Dr. Jan Miller, dean of the College of Education. Addressing and meeting the unique needs of rural teachers and schools are the foundation of UWA’s teacher education programs, and Project Grow is paradigmatic of its mission.

The program is rooted in character development—for the teacher and the school leader, who will foster positive character traits among students, and the students among their families and communities.

“Project Grow will be led by school leaders who explicitly focus on character formation, with teachers who go the extra mile to ensure that all students feel safe and have a strong sense of belonging,” Miller said. “These school communities will ensure that students grow in character, take pride in their community, and instill trust in their families by practicing good character and becoming role models.”

The focus on character development, combined with UWA’s proven track record of implementing transformative educational programs, led to the Kern Family Foundation’s confidence in the UWA team as a good steward of the funding.

The Kern Family Foundation’s mission is to empower the rising generation of Americans to build flourishing lives anchored in strong character, inspired by quality education, driven by an entrepreneurial mindset, and guided by the desire to create value for others.

“The Kern Family Foundation is pleased to invest in this catalytic project that has the potential to impact the character and culture of school communities across the Black Belt region,” said Kern Family Foundation President James C. Rahn. “Schools have the responsibility to support parents in the formation of their children. While it is vitally important that young people be equipped with the knowledge and skills needed for work and life in the 21st Century, it is essential for this to be built on a strong foundation of character and virtue. The Foundation team is confident in UWA’s ability to support emerging and existing school leaders and other educators as they go about this life changing work.”

UWA was established as a school for teachers nearly 200 years ago and continues to lead the state in teacher certifications.

“UWA is one of some 20 institutions in Alabama preparing future educators for state certification, and we consistently provide approximately 25 percent of the state’s certified teachers,” Miller explained. “We must overcome the state’s teacher shortage, and it is critical that we set the standard very high while also building networks that equip educators to be exceptionally strong leaders.”

UWA already has strong partnerships with school systems throughout the three regions included in Project Grow, having implemented two U.S. Department of Education Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) projects totaling over $10 million in funding for the partnership districts over the last seven years. Additionally, the districts have “Teacher Connect” programs that provide for additional services such as professional development and grant writing assistance.

“We are exceedingly proud of the work that the College of Education is doing to make a lasting positive impact on our region’s future,” said UWA President Ken Tucker. “Our history of educating Alabama’s teachers spans nearly 200 years. We recognize the increasingly tremendous impact that educators have in shaping society, and we are committed to strengthening our programs in a way that spreads positive development throughout the region we serve.”

Two primary objectives create the groundwork for Project Grow: cultivating powerful, transformative leadership in rural schools, and redesigning key education programs at UWA to foster the development of virtuous educators.

Cultivating powerful, transformational leadership in rural schools, UWA is establishing three rural leader networks—one in each of the three target regions—in the Black Belt, in south Alabama, and in east Mississippi.

In this data-driven, research-guided model, UWA’s instructional leadership, teacher leader, counseling, library media, and teacher education programs will be redesigned to continue identifying and addressing unique needs of rural education while fostering the development of virtuous educators.

“We use the term ‘virtuous’ in this program often, and it cannot be overstated,” Miller said. “Educators and school leaders are in a unique position to help shape our communities, our society. We recognize many challenges that rural educators and rural school systems face, such as high turnover in leadership and the lack of stability that results from that, and we believe that this program can curve the trends of challenges.”