When she graduates with an education degree from North Georgia College & State University in May, Shelby Mooney will have already spent two years teaching at a school.
“Being around these kids, it just reinforces that this is my calling,” said Mooney, a Forsyth resident who’s working at Coal Mountain Elementary. “I can’t wait to get my degree and get started because I already know how much I love it.”
Her degree will also be from a nationally accredited program.
The university’s school of education recently earned full accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education for its undergraduate- and graduate-level programs.
The national accreditation is required by the University System of Georgia and is part of a seven-year review process that included a site visit in February.
“The fact that North Georgia’s School of Education has once again been recognized in this manner is further indication of the level of excellence of our teacher preparation programs,” university President Bonita Jacobs said.
“[The council] is a highly respected and thorough accrediting body, which makes this designation even more meaningful.”
Reviewers specifically noted the school’s professional development communities program, which is a collaboration with local school systems to place education students in classrooms for their last two years of school. That program was started three years ago.
Traditionally, just senior students have worked full time in real classrooms during their last semester.
“A lot of schools are moving in that direction,” said Bob Michael, dean of the School of Education. “The whole intent is to have much more extensive and integrated experiences in the school, where the students really are becoming part of the faculty and the school, if you will, more quickly.
“Their coursework is more aligned with and integrated with what’s going on in the school.”
Education students are placed in public schools, with their professors, in Forsyth, Dawson, Hall and Lumpkin counties in a two-year, full-immersion model.
The program allows students at least 50 percent more field experience than is required for teacher certification.
Mooney is one of a handful of North Georgia students working at Coal Mountain, where North Georgia associate professor Kellie Whelan-Kim works as an instructional coach.
The juniors in the program, she said “start in schools from day one.”
“They go to pre-planning for the teachers, so we prep them with pre-planning but they’re really jumping right in,” Whelan-Kim said.
Coal Mountain Principal Debbie Smith said they are treated “just like a first-year teacher.”
“It gives them a lot of experience of what that’s going to be like,” Smith said. “What that does is when they do get a teaching job, they’re not as much like a first-year teacher as they are an experienced teacher because they have had that experience of everything a teacher goes through every day.”
There are nearly 40 North Georgia juniors and seniors between five of Forsyth County’s elementary schools.
They include Haleigh Krauss, who said classroom management and being part of Coal Mountain for a full year have been among the most valuable tools of the program.
“You can’t teach them unless you have a classroom that is managed,” Krauss said. “We’re in here pretty much every day, all day and so we’re really getting to come into this school instead of just having our classes, and we build more of a community with the schools we’re in.”
In fact, the students hardly set foot on North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus during the program. Even roundtable lectures with professors and other students are done in the public schools.
As a junior, Maranda McGaha has only been teaching in a Coal Mountain classroom since August. But without the hands-on experience, she would not be prepared to do so.
“If I wasn’t doing this and I just went in and applied and got a job as a teacher, I would have no clue what to do,” she said. “I’ve learned so much more from being in here than I do from being in a classroom.
“It’s just experience. You can learn bullet points, like these are the things you’re supposed to do. But until you do it, you don’t know.”
Mooney said her friends at other schools won’t be going into the classroom until January of their senior year.
“I feel like that’s a huge disadvantage,” she said. “I don’t think that you can sit there and lecture at a classroom and prepare someone for this. We’ve seen all sorts of different situations — children with different needs and different learning styles, plus all of these different teachers that have different ways of teaching — so I’m able to pick up from all of that.
“This is the real deal. This is what it’s going to be like when I’m out there.”
North Georgia is one of 26 public and private schools in the state to carry the national accreditation for one or more of its teacher preparation programs. But once the school consolidates with Gainesville State College, the program will have to go through the accreditation process again.
“If the past is any indication, we should do quite well in that re-evaluation because Gainesville State just complete its [accreditation] renewal last year and both institutions came out very strong at the end of the renewal process,” Michael said.
Lee Johnson of the FCN regional staff contributed to this report.