The ranching industry’s toxic grass problem

America’s “fescue belt,” named for an exotic grass called tall fescue, dominates the pastureland from Missouri and Arkansas in the west to the coast of the Carolinas in the east. Within that swath, a quarter of the nation’s cows — more than 15 million in all — graze fields that stay green through the winter while the rest of the region’s grasses turn brown and go dormant. 

But the fescue these cows are eating is toxic. The animals lose hooves. Parts of their tails and the tips of their ears slough off. For most of the year, they spend any moderately warm day standing in ponds and creeks trying to reduce fevers. They breathe heavily, fail to put on weight, and produce less milk. Some fail to conceive, and some of the calves they do conceive die. The disorder, fescue toxicosis, costs the livestock industry up to $2 billion a year in lost production. “Fescue toxicity is the most devastating livestock disorder east of the Mississippi,” said Craig Roberts, a forage specialist at the University of Missouri (MU) Extension and an expert on fescue.

In Elk Creek, Missouri, cattle stand in a pond to cool their fever caused by fescue toxicosis, which costs the beef industry as much as $2 billion a year in lost production.

By the early 20th century, decades of timber-cutting and overgrazing had left the ranching region in southern states barren, its nutrient-rich native grasses replaced by a motley assortment of plants that made poor forage. Then, in the 1930s, a University of Kentucky professor spotted an exotic type of fescue growing in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, which seemed to thrive even on exhausted land. Unlike most native grasses, Kentucky-31, as it was called, stayed green and hearty through the winter. Ranchers found the species remarkably resilient and, if not beloved by cattle, edible enough to plant. Over the next 20 years, much of the country’s southern landscape was transformed into a lush, evergreen pasture capable of supporting a robust cattle industry. 

As early as the 1950s, however, ranchers began to notice tall fescue’s disturbing effects. One study from that time showed that cattle had to be fenced out of other grasses before they’d touch fescue. When they did eat it, the cows saw only one-sixth of their normal weight gain and lost eight pounds of milk production a day. 

Between the cells in fescue grows an endophyte, a fungus living symbiotically inside the grass. The endophyte is what makes the fescue robust against drought and overgrazing, but it’s also what makes it toxic. When scientists engineered a version of fescue without the fungal endophyte, in 1982, its hardiness disappeared and ranchers saw it die out among their winter pastures. Farmers learned to live with the health impacts of the toxic version, and today it remains the primary pasture grass across 37 million acres of farmland. 

It’s a longstanding problem, and it’s spreading. Warming temperatures from climate change are now expanding the northern limit of the fescue belt, and the grass is marching into new areas, taking root on disturbed land, such as pastures. Northern Illinois and southern Iowa could already be officially added to the fescue belt, Roberts said, introducing toxicosis to new farming regions.

Illustration of the tall fescue endophyte made from a scientific photo. By Amelia Bates/Grist

“It’s becoming not just present but part of their normal pastures,” he said, noting that he increasingly gets calls from farmers in this region who are wondering what to do.

As more ranchers find themselves facing the challenges of toxic fescue, there are two strategies emerging to finally solve the decades-old problem, though in diametrically opposed ways. One involves planting a modified version of tall fescue — called “friendly fescue” — in which the toxic endophyte has been replaced by a benign one that still keeps the grass hearty and green all winter. Another would abandon fescue altogether and restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once dominated the region, helping to revitalize natural carbon sinks and fight climate change.

For a variety of reasons — some economic, some cultural — neither solution has really taken hold with most fescue belt ranchers. But the debate embodies the agricultural industry in the era of climate change: As ecosystems shift and extreme weather makes farming even more precarious, ranchers are facing tough decisions about how to adapt their land use practices. What is best for business, and will that ultimately be what’s best for the land and for the changing climate? 

Friendly fescue hit the market in 2000, developed by Pennington Seed, Inc. It looks identical to toxic fescue and behaves almost identically, thus requiring little change to the ranching habits of fescue belt farmers over the last 70 years. 

It would seem an ideal fit for an industry focused on maintaining the status quo amid climate challenges. But ranchers have been slow to embrace it. For one thing, friendly fescue, formally known as “novel endophyte fescue,” costs twice as much as the toxic variety — $4 for a pound of seed versus $2. And replacing one grass with another is labor-intensive; a 2004 report by the University of Georgia said it would take ranchers who made the switch about three years to break even. Matt Poore, a professor of animal science at North Carolina State University, chairs the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, a national organization dedicated to eradicating toxic fescue. Yet Poore, who also raises cattle, has only converted 30 percent of his fields, preferring to do it slowly. “The fear of failure is a big deal,” he said. “You’re sticking your neck out there when you go to kill something that looks really good.”

An overgrazed fescue pasture in Elk Creek, Missouri. Many ranchers are reluctant to abandon fescue, despite the problems it causes, because the fields stay lush and green through the winter.

Many ranchers would like to avoid the risk of total pasture makeovers, if they can. Until now, they have found ways to scrape by, relying on a parade of treatments that have come out through the decades, promising relief from toxicosis. 

They can supplement their cows’ diets with grain (an expensive remedy), or cut and dry their fescue and feed it to them as hay, which reduces its toxicity somewhat. They can dilute the toxicity of their fields by planting clover among the fescue, or clip the especially toxic seed heads before cows can graze them. They can try to genetically select cows with moderate fescue tolerance, which can salvage as much as a quarter of their losses. Poore counts over 100 such remedies. “If you do enough of those things you can tell yourself you don’t really have a problem,” he said. Meanwhile, the lush ground cover that fescue displays in winter is seductive.

A lack of trust, too, is a problem. In the early 1980s, when researchers introduced endophyte-free fescue, it was hailed as the answer to toxicosis, a way to save the industry. Ranchers trusted the scientists, and they lost a lot of money when that version withered in the fields. The sting of that debacle persists as researchers try to convince ranchers to trust friendly fescue. “The sins of the past have come back to haunt us,” MU’s Roberts said. “It’s going to take a while to overcome that screwup.”

Every March, Roberts and other scientists travel around the fescue belt giving workshops on friendly fescue to anyone who will listen. He tries to assuage ranchers who are worried about the expense and labor of pasture conversion. 

There aren’t good numbers on adoption rates because seed companies are guarded about how much they sell. But Roberts says he knows it’s rising. Some states promote it more than others, by offering cost-shares, for example, and hosting workshops like those Roberts leads.

A clump of native grass that has been browsed by bison in one of Amy Hamilton’s native grazing fields in Elk Creek, Missouri. The roots of native grasses reach three times deeper than fescue roots, making them drought-resistant as well as efficient carbon sinks.

It doesn’t help that endophyte-free fescue — the one that fails in the winter — remains on the market. The state of Kentucky even provides cost-share funding for ranchers who switch from toxic fescue to endophyte-free fescue. And several Kentucky ranchers said they were still unclear on the differences among toxic fescue, endophyte-free fescue, and friendly fescue. Farm supply stores often don’t even stock friendly fescue seed, as it’s less shelf stable.

Roberts noted that toxic fescue exudes fluids that “pretty much destroy the food web,” poisoning insects that quail and other creatures feed on. A 2014 study showed that climate change could increase the endophyte’s toxicity. Friendly fescue soil, by contrast, has more microbes than toxic fescue soil. And water quality is better with friendly fescue, too, since sick cows don’t have to congregate in streams and ponds to stay cool.

Despite the confusion and slow uptake, Roberts is optimistic, noting the 30 years it took for farmers to embrace the revolution of hybrid corn in the early 20th century. And he can point to some wins. Darrel Franson, a Missouri rancher who remembers the endophyte-free fescue debacle, nevertheless decided to take the risk, converting his 126 acres to friendly fescue. He loves the results. “It’s hard to argue with the production potential of tall fescue and the length of season it gives us,” he said.

Roberts’ employer, the University of Missouri, is betting that a modified version of exotic fescue will appeal to ranchers more than the idea of converting to native grasslands. “What we’re promoting is environmentally friendly as well as economically sound,” he said. “When you seed a nontoxic endophyte and add legumes [to dilute pasture toxicity], that works as well as anything, and we have a lot of data on it. It may take another 20 years for it to catch on, but it’s not going away. It’s too good.”

For decades, Amy Hamilton and her late husband Rex fought fescue toxicosis in Texas County, Missouri, the heart of the Ozarks. They watched their and their neighbors’ cows lose tail switches, hooves, and parts of their ears to gangrene. Finally, they’d had enough. 

But the Hamiltons didn’t reach for an artificially modified version of the exotic grass. Instead, in 2012, they converted 90 acres of pasture to native warm-season grasses, using their own money and cost-share funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. The effects were immediate; the next year they documented increased conception and weaning rates in their cows and calves. Since then, they’ve converted another 75 acres. A former soil conservationist with a degree in agronomy, Hamilton’s mission became to annihilate fescue, on her property and across the fescue belt.

Amy Hamilton, seen here in a patch of prairie blazing star in one of her native grazing fields, has made it her life’s work to eradicate fescue.

I visited Hamilton’s ranch in November 2022, where they run about 45 cows and 150 bison. She and her daughter Elizabeth Steele, who helps run the family’s native seed company, walked through a pasture where fescue grew 15 years ago. Now big bluestem, little bluestem, and sunflowers fill the main body of the pasture, and freshwater cordgrass and ironweed decorate a creek’s edge. Quail have returned for the first time in decades. 

Unlike the Hamiltons’ neighbors’ pastures, however, this field was not green; most of the plants had gone dormant for winter. Hamilton reached through a thick mass of bluestem and pointed to two diminutive, green plants: wild rye and a sedge species, cool-season grasses that provide a native analogue to fescue — and, crucially, winter forage.

“This is what would have been here pre-settlement,” said Steele, referring to the land before Europeans arrived. “A functioning grassland with different plants serving different functions. Nature’s design is not for monocultures.” 

To understand the fescue-native debate requires an understanding of the ecological tradeoff between warm- and cool-season grasses. Simply put, warm-season grasses grow in the summer, harnessing the strong sunshine to grow tall and robust; then they go dormant in the winter. Cool-season grasses do the opposite, putting their evolutionary resources into frost-tolerance. As a result, they tend to be smaller than their warm-season counterparts, providing less biomass and less food per plant for the cows that graze them. 

Hamilton and Steele have decided to bet on biodiversity. Instead of a year-round monoculture of fescue, they have a biodiverse mix of warm- and cool-season grasses, along with wildflowers. It’s not as visibly lush as a fescue field, but the benefits to cattle health, soil health, and climate resistance make it worth it. “It is a kind of faith that these prairies evolved for the good of the native species that were here,” Hamilton said.

Even with the leaner cool-season grasses, their native fields produce twice as much forage as the old fescue fields and generate a much higher amount of organic matter, enriching the soil and allowing the pasture to hold more water. A soil-health specialist from NRCS tested their soil’s organic matter content before the 2012 restoration, then again five years later. The result was pastureland that holds up to a half gallon more water than a typical fescue field. 

In a warming climate with more extreme droughts — much of the Ozarks was in severe drought last year — that extra water storage can make a critical difference for cattle and soil health. The southeastern U.S., the heart of the fescue belt, faces a future of more intense drought and floods. The Hamiltons’ biodiverse style of ranching helps address both extremes, and they expect their native ecosystems will be more resilient to climate change.

Elizabeth Steele, with help from her niece and sons, gathers native flowers for a bouquet near their ranch in Elk Creek, Missouri. “Nature’s design is not for monocultures,” she says.

“[The extra water] trickles into our stream through the year, as opposed to running off in a flood,” said Steele.

The roots of native grasses also reach three times deeper than fescue roots, making them drought-resistant as well as efficient carbon sinks. Grasslands are uniquely good at carbon sequestration. Unlike forests, they store more than 80 percent of their carbon underground, where it’s more safely sequestered than in aboveground trees where the carbon can potentially volatilize and return to the atmosphere. What’s more, intensive grazing of monocultures makes it hard to sequester carbon. A 2019 study, published in the journal Nature, showed that native, biodiverse, restored grasslands hold more than twice as much carbon as monocultures. The deep roots of the Hamiltons’ native species lock carbon deep underground, where it can take hundreds or even thousands of years to return to the atmosphere.

In the years since the Hamiltons converted their fields, the use of native warm-season grasses has gained momentum in the ranching industry. The University of Tennessee — firmly in the fescue belt — opened a Center for Native Grasslands Management in 2006 aimed at getting ranchers to incorporate native warm-season grasses (known as NWSGs) into pastureland. The Missouri Department of Conservation conducts workshops to familiarize ranchers with NWSGs. Research by the native grasslands center found that pastures of native switchgrass financially outperform fescue pastures. 

And Patrick D. Keyser, the center’s director, said native grasses significantly outperform fescue in climate resiliency. Fescue, he says, wants it to be 73 degrees and rainy every other day. “Think Oregon or Scotland,” he said. Native warm-season grasses in the fescue belt, on the other hand, can go weeks with blistering heat and drought without a problem. “To them, the worst climate projections that we’re getting really aren’t a big deal. From a resiliency standpoint, they absolutely win.” 

If replacing fescue with natives is moving slowly in general, replacing it with native cool-season grasses, to get year-round forage, remains nearly unheard of. As with friendly fescue, cost is partly to blame. Elizabeth Steele’s “cowboy math” estimates that a native conversion today would cost around $365 per acre, a scary number for ranchers. Proponents of native conversion also face a more complicated obstacle than cost as they seek buy-in from ranchers. The debate over how beef cattle are raised is caught up in the culture war over climate change. By some estimates, meat production accounts for nearly 60 percent of the greenhouse gasses generated by the food system, with beef as the leading culprit. Even as the concept of “regenerative ranching,” a method of cattle farming that tries to restore degraded soil and reduce emissions, has secured a toehold in the industry, “climate change” remains a political term in farm country, one that is largely avoided.

Ranchers like Amy Hamilton risk getting marginalized as “progressives.” So while she believes diverse native grasslands will make pastures more resilient to climate change, she doesn’t mention that when proselytizing to fellow ranchers. Instead she talks about increased water infiltration, more abundant wildlife, and improved soil health — things that matter to ranchers no matter their thoughts on climate change. 

She also tells them that native conversion pencils out. Hamilton doesn’t fertilize her pastures, and she rarely uses hay, as most ranchers do to supplement their cows’ fescue diet. And Steele estimates that, because native pastures produce more forage than fescue monocultures, increased forage and resulting weight gain makes up for the initial conversion costs in less than two years. “The more you emulate natural systems, the less money you have to spend on stuff like baling machines, herbicides, toxicosis effects, and fertilizer,” she said. That extra forage also allows ranchers to feed more cows. So if a rancher wants to expand their herd size, they can either expand their fescue acreage, for $3,000 an acre, or spend $365 an acre to convert the land they already have to natives. 

Saving money matters in the fescue belt. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, 60 percent of farms in Texas County, Missouri, run a deficit, and every state in the fescue belt loses money on agriculture, except for Illinois, which is largely a crop state. 

“Agriculture is so hard that if you don’t do it with your pocketbook in mind, you can cause people to go broke. I don’t want to do that,” Hamilton said. Hamilton estimates that more than 100 other fescue belt ranchers she’s in touch with are in the process of converting some or all of their pasture to native grasses. One of them, Steve Freeman, co-owns Woods Fork Cattle Company with his wife, Judy, in Hartville, Missouri. Freeman has converted 80 acres of fescue to natives, with plans to convert 180 more in three years. In total, that will make a third of his pasture diverse native grasslands.

Hamilton’s bison herd browsing in one of her native grazing fields in Elk Creek, Missouri.

“Almost all my inspiration has come from going to [the Hamiltons’] field days every year and seeing what this land could be,” Freeman said. For him it’s not just about eradicating fescue toxicosis, it’s about the whole suite of benefits for biodiversity, soil health, and water retention. “I realized we’re not going to get there with the grasses we have.”

Freeman notes the power imbalance between the informal effort to promote native grasses and the universities and beef industry groups that are pushing modified fescue. “There’s no money that backs this,” he said of native restoration. “The novel endophytes and those kinds of things, there’s a lot of money to be made. They’ve helped the universities. I think [Hamilton] is starting to change people’s minds, but it’s been 15 years of doing this.”

For his part, MU’s Roberts hears the subtle dig at his work. “Friends of mine in conservation groups think the university professors are hooked on fescue,” he said. “They’re not. What they’re hooked on is a long grazing season, good yield, and good quality. They’re hooked on criteria, not on a species.”

Either way, change on this scale takes time. The University of Missouri claims that 98 percent of pastures in the state are still toxic, with ranchers slowly opening up to either friendly fescue or native forage. “I’m sure there are ranchers out there that think we’re absolutely nuts,” Hamilton said. “But some of them are interested in thinking about new ways of doing things.”

As we drove out to visit her cows, we passed some of her neighbors’ fields. In one, a herd of emaciated cattle had grazed a fescue field down to stubble. In another, all but a few cows stood in the middle of a pond, trying to cool themselves on a mild, cloudy day. 

“These are good people,” Hamilton said. “They’re just trying to make a living.”

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Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma

Two Internet service providers are merging to cover a larger area of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, but an expert in community broadband networks cautions that consolidation can often hurt customer service.

The two former companies – 360 Communications of Durant, Oklahoma, and 903 Broadband of Leonard, Texas – were roughly the same size, which means the combination is a doubling in size for both. Upon the merger in August that became 360 Broadband, the new company had nearly 16,000 subscribers and 88 employees across 10,000 square miles and 30 counties: 20 in Oklahoma, six in Texas, and four in Arkansas. The company’s services are provided via a hybrid network containing both fiber elements and almost 250 wireless towers.

Drew Beverage, chief strategy officer for 360 Broadband, said it seemed smart to combine the two companies for funding opportunities.

“At the federal level, at the state level, it makes sense for the two companies to come together to combine resources to be able to play in that arena,” he told the Daily Yonder. “And not only provide better customer service, give us better options to be able to go after some of that federal money to build out more resources to build out more rural space. And we’re talking about the most rural of towns.”

Christopher Mitchell, who runs the Community Broadband Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in general, he is concerned about consolidation and the impact it has.

“We worry that local customer service will be harmed, and get worse,” he told the Daily Yonder. He added, however, that he knows there is a high cost of building and operating compared to many other businesses.

“And so, if you don’t have 5,000 to 10,000 subscribers, it can be hard to be able to grow the network in ways that you would like. And so it’s kind of expected, I feel like for some ISPs to grow through mergers,” he said. “As they get bigger and bigger, we really worry about their ability to meet all of the local needs.”

Beverage served on the Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council for one year. He said making sure people know about the Affordable Connectivity Program is important. The program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward Internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. 360 Broadband will now cover Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, Beverage added.

“If nobody has ever been around someone that builds broadband, they might not know that that is offered to them,” he said. “But I think it will have a huge impact for the small communities, the more we build, to be able to get reasonable, reliable broadband service.”

Mitchell said that it’s important for a new company from a merger to try to remain rooted in the communities they are serving.

“We find that when an ISP is rooted in the community, with its technicians, and its ownership – all being within a community – that they tend to make more investments in higher quality services, and they provide better customer service,” he said. “As they spend less time in the community – as they become a larger, more regional ISP – they may not put as much attention into the community that they previously had.”

Beverage said they hired locally from the communities they serve,

“I think it’s a lot of buy-in from our staff, knowing that we’re bringing Internet to their family members, loved ones, the community that they grew up in,” Beverage said. “And so I think there’s a big difference there: the money is not in rural Internet, the money is where there’s a population that can give you a better ROI. But we have a passion to serve rural communities.”

Mitchell said it’s also important to keep in mind who is operating and running a combined company.

“If it’s still a company that is owned by a few people who are deeply committed to providing high-quality internet access, that may still be able to provide a high quality service,” he said. “If it’s owned by private equity, which is focused on a long-term, maximization of profits or even a short-term maximization of profits, then the experience is less likely to go well for the customers.

The post Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

To fight teacher shortages, schools turn to custodians, bus drivers and aides 

MORGAN CITY, La. — Jenna Gros jangles as she walks the halls of Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. The dozens of keys she carries while she sweeps, sprays, shelves and sorts make a loud sound, and when children hear her coming, they call out, “Miss Jenna!” 

Gros is head custodian at Wyandotte, in this small town in southern Louisiana. She’s also a teacher-in-training.  

In August 2020, she signed up for a new program designed to provide people working in school settings the chance to turn their job into an undergraduate degree in education, at a low cost. There’s untapped potential among people who work in schools right now, as classroom aides, lunchroom workers, afterschool staff and more, the thinking goes, and helping them become teachers could ease the shortage that’s dire in some districts around the country, particularly in rural areas like this one. 

Brusly Elementary School has 595 students, ranging from ages two to seven. Principal Lesley Green says teacher retention is one of her top priorities: “Because we know that the best thing for our babies is stability and consistency. And that’s very important at this age level, especially where they thrive off of routines, procedures and familiar faces.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In two and a half years, the teacher training program, run by nonprofit Reach University, has grown from 50 applicants to about 1,000, with most coming from rural areas of Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and California. The “apprenticeship degree” model costs students $75 dollars a month. The rest of the funding comes from Pell Grants and philanthropic donations. The classes, which are online, are taught by award-winning teachers, and districts must agree to have students work in the classroom for 15 hours a week as part of their training.

We have overlooked a talent pool to our detriment,” said Joe Ross, president of Reach University. “These people have heart and they have the grit and they have the intelligence. There’s a piece of paper standing in the way.” 

Efforts to recruit teacher candidates from the local community date back to the 1990s, but programs have “exploded” in number over the past five years, said Danielle Edwards, assistant professor  of educational leadership, policy and workforce development at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Some of these “grow your own” programs, like Reach’s, recruit school employees who don’t have college degrees or degrees in education, while others focus on retired professionals, military veterans, college students, and even K12 students, with some starting as young as middle school.

“‘Grow your own’ has really caught on fire,” said Edwards, in part because of research showing that about 85 percent of teachers teach within 40 miles of where they grew up. But while these programs are increasingly popular, she says it isn’t clear what the teacher outcomes are in terms of effectiveness or retention. 

Related: Teacher shortages are real, but not for the reasons you’ve heard

Nationwide, there are at least 36,500 teacher vacancies, along with approximately 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers, according to estimates by Tuan Nguyen, anassociate professor of education at Kansas State University. At Wyandotte, Principal Celeste Pipes has three uncertified teachers out of 26. 

“We are pulling people literally off the streets to fill spots in a classroom,” she said. Surrounding parishes in this part of Louisiana, 85 miles west of New Orleans, pay more than the starting salary of $46,000 she can offer; some even cover the full cost of health insurance. 

Data suggests not having qualified teachers can worsen student achievement and increase costs for districts. An unstable workforce also affects the school culture, said Pipes: “Once we have people here that are years and years and years in, we know how things are run.”

Jenna Gros, head custodian at Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, stops to tie a student’s shoe. She said she makes it a point to develop relationships with students: “We don’t just do garbage, you know?” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

As Gros walks the hallways, she stops to swat a fly for a scared child, ties a first grader’s shoelaces and asks a third about their math homework. Her colleagues had long noticed her calm, encouraging manner, and so, when a teacher’s aide at Wyandotte heard about Reach, she urged Gros to sign up with her. 

Gros grew up in this town — her father worked as a mechanic in the oil rigs — and always wanted to be a teacher. But with three children and a salary of $22,000 a year, she couldn’t afford to do so. The low cost and logistics of Reach’s program suddenly made it possible: Her district agreed to her spending 15 hours of her work week in the classroom, mentoring or tutoring students. She takes her online classes at night or on weekends.

Like other teacher-candidates at Reach University, Jenna Gros spends 15 hours a week in classrooms. She sometimes observes teachers, and other times helps children in small groups. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Current employees are also in the retirement system, meaning the years they’ve already worked count toward their pension. For Gros, who has worked for 18 years in her school system, that was an important consideration, she said. 

Pipes said people like Gros understand the vibe of this rural community — the importance of family, the focus on church, the love of hunting. And people with community roots are also less likely to leave, said Chandler Smith, the superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish School System, a few hours’ drive away. 

His district is the second-highest paying in the state but still struggles to attract and retain teachers: It saw a 15 percent teacher turnover rate last year. Now, it has 29 teacher candidates through Reach. 

Related: Uncertified teachers filling holes across the South 

In West Baton Rouge Parish, Jackie Noble is walking back into the Brusly Elementary school building at 6:45 p.m. She’d finished her workday as a special education teacher’s aide around 3:30 p.m., then babysat her granddaughter for a few hours, spent time with her husband, and picked up a McDonald’s order of chicken nuggets, a large coffee and a Coke to get her through her evening classes. Some Reach classes go until 11 p.m. 

Noble was a bus driver in this area for five years, but she longed to be a teacher. When she mustered the courage to research options for joining the profession, she learned it would cost somewhere between $5,000 to $15,000 a year over at least four years. “I wasn’t even financially able to pay for my transcript because it was going to cost me almost $100,” she said. 

When Noble heard about Reach and the monthly tuition of $75 a month, she said, “My mouth hit the floor.”

Ross, of Reach University, said he often hears some variation of: “I had to choose between a job and a degree.” 

“What if we eliminate the question?” he said. “Let’s turn jobs into degrees.”

Brusly Elementary is quiet as Noble settles down in a classroom. She moves her food strategically off camera and ensures she has multiple devices logged in: her phone, laptop and desktop. Sometimes the internet here is spotty, and she doesn’t want to take any chances. 

It’s the night of the final class of her course, “Children with Special Needs: History and Practice.” Her 24 classmates smile and wave as they log on from different states. They’ve been taking turns presenting on disabilities such as dyslexia, brain injuries and deafness; Noble gave hers, on assistive technologies for children with physical disabilities, last week. 

Reach began in 2006 as a certification program for entry-level teachers who had a degree but still needed a credential. It then expanded to offer credentials to teachers who wanted to move into administration as well as graduate degrees in teaching and leadership. In 2020, Reach University started the program focused on school employees without a degree.

Kim Eckert, a former Louisiana teacher of the year and Reach’s dean, says she was drawn to the program because, as a high school special education teacher, she saw how little opportunity there was for classroom aides in her school to boost their skills. She started monthly workshops specifically for them.  

Kimberly Eckert, dean of Reach University and the 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, stands outside Brusly Elementary School in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. She says there’s an untapped pool of potential teacher candidates working as secretaries, bus drivers and janitors that society hasn’t traditionally considered as possible educators. “We definitely have blinders on. I think we’re conditioned to think that teachers look and sound and behave a certain way and we need to push ourselves and those limitations as well.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In growing the Reach program, Eckert drew from her teacher-of-the-year class, hiring people who understood the realities of classroom management and could model what it’s like to be a great teacher. She shied away from those who haven’t proven themselves in the classroom, even if they have degrees from top universities. “Everybody thinks they can be a teacher because they’ve had a teacher,” she said, but that’s not true. 

The 15 hours a week of “in-class training,” which can include observing a teacher, tutoring students or helping write lessons, is designed to allow students to test out what they’re learning almost immediately, without having to wait months or years to put their studies into practice. Michelle Cottrell Williams, a Reach administrator and Virginia’s 2018 teacher of the year, recalls discussing an exercise in class about Disney’s portrayal of historical events versus the reality. One of her students, a classroom aide, shared it with the fifth graders she was working with the next day. 

Noble says she’ll carry lessons about managing students from the bus to her classroom. She was responsible for up to 70 students while driving 45 miles an hour — so 20 in a classroom seems doable, she said. 

She can’t wait to have her own classroom where she is responsible for everything. “Being with the students approximately eight hours a day, you make a very, very larger impression on their lives,” she said. 

Related: In one giant classroom, four teachers manage 135 kids — and love it 

In May, Reach graduated its first class of teachers, a group of 13 students from Louisiana who had prior credits. The organization’s first full cohort will walk across the stage in spring 2024. 

There are promising signs. Nationwide, about half of teacher candidates pass their state’s teaching licensure exam; more than 60 percent of the 13 Reach graduates did. All of them had a job waiting for them, not only in their local community, but in the building where they’d been working. 

But Roddy Theobald, deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and researcher at the American Institutes for Research, says far more research is needed on “grow your own” programs. “There’s very, very little empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these pathways,” he said. 

One of the challenges is that the programs rarely target the specific needs of schools, he said. Some states have staffing shortages only in specific areas, like special education, STEM or elementary ed. “Sometimes they result in even more teachers with the right credentials to teach courses that the state doesn’t actually need,” he said. 

Reach University has several state Teachers of the Year among its faculty for its ‘grown your own’ program, including from Virginia, Idaho, Delaware and Hawaii. Dean Kim Eckert, herself a 2018 teacher of the year from Louisiana, says she wanted the best educators with the latest information in front of her teacher candidates. “It’s not like a typical university where in four years you’ll have your own class and you’ll be a great teacher. You are in your own class right now,” Eckert says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Edwards, one of the first researchers to study “grow your own” programs, is investigating whether teachers who complete them are effective in the classroom and stay employed in the field long term, as well as how diverse these educators are and whether they actually end up in hard-to-staff schools. 

“States are investing millions of dollars into this strategy, and we don’t know anything about its effectiveness,” she said. “We could be putting all this money into something that may or may not work.” 

Ross, of Reach University, says his group plans to research whether its new teachers are effective and stay in their jobs. In terms of meeting schools’ specific labor needs, Reach has agreements with other organizations such as TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the University of West Alabama to help people take higher-level courses in hard-to-fill specialties such as high school math. But while Reach staff look at information on teacher vacancies before partnering with a school district, they don’t focus on matching the district’s exact staffing needs said Ross: “Our hope is the numbers work themselves out.”

Jenna Gros, the head custodian of Wyandotte, makes it a point to know children’s names and speak to them as she works. “It’s about building a bond. You have to be able to bond with them in order to make them feel like they are someone and that they can be someone,” she says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In Louisiana, Ross said he believes the organization could put a serious dent in the teacher vacancy numbers statewide. Some 84 percent of all parishes have signed on for Reach trainees, he said, and 650 teachers-in-training are enrolled. That amounts to more than a quarter of the teacher vacancy numbers statewide, 2,500.

“We’re getting pretty close to being a material contribution to the solution in that state,” he said. 

His group is also looking to partner with states, including Louisiana, to use Department of Labor money for teacher apprenticeships. At least 16 states have such programs. Under a Labor Department rule last year, teacher apprenticeships can now access millions in federal job-training funds. Reach is in talks to use some of that money, which Ross says would allow it to make the programs free to students and rely less on philanthropy.  

A straight-A student since her first semester, head custodian Jenna Gros expects to graduate without any debt in May 2024. She expects to teach at this same elementary school. At that point, her salary will almost double.

She said she loves how a teacher can shape a child’s future for the better. “That’s what a teacher is — a nurturer trying to provide them with the resources that they are going to need for later on in life. 

I think I can be that person,” she said. She pauses. “I know I can.” 

This story about grow your own programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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