Ideas are brewing for Makenzi Solis.
She wants to research new ways to help special education students learn in general education classrooms.
And she’ll have the opportunity to do so as part of the first cohort for the Nevada Institute for Teaching and Educator Preparation.
“I think it’s really cool because we’re going to be on the forefront of education,” Solis, 18, said. “Once we graduate, we’re going to be the people that other educators look at for advice on how to run their classrooms and how to use different techniques that we have researched.”
Solis is one of 10 fellows — or “Top Gun” future educators — on UNLV’s campus this fall. The program was formed in June 2017 by Gov. Brian Sandoval as a way of recruiting the most promising future educators from around the country to teach Nevada students.
“We’re situated in the middle of the fifth-largest school district and among the most diverse school districts in the country,” said Kim Metcalf, dean of the College of Education at UNLV. “While we have the same problems that other large districts have, if you want to pursue a career in education, we argue that Clark County provides you opportunities that over the course of your career, you aren’t going to have any place else.”
The state Board of Education chose UNLV to house the Top Gun program, and awarded the university $1 million from the state — combined with $1 million in university matching funds — for the first two years.
“It’s project based — driven by student interest and their voice,” said Matt Borek, director of educator preparation, recruitment and field placement at UNLV. “Wherever their interests take them, we’ll help facilitate and take it to the next step.”
Jessica Gonzalez, a Top Gun fellow studying special education, wants to research what happens to special education students once they leave public education.
“Some of them just sit at home because their parents don’t have knowledge that they can go to college or that there’s programs that will support their kids to go to college,” she said.
Borek and Metcalf want the Top Gun fellows — armed with research and project-based opportunities — to enter Nevada classrooms as excellent teachers and demonstrate leadership potential to make a positive change on the overall K-12 system in the state. Metcalf says he sees UNLV becoming world-renowned for generating and shaping professional teaching practice.
“It’s really exciting because we understand that these opportunities aren’t really given to undergrad students, especially first-year undergrad students,” Gonzalez, a freshman, said. “To be given this opportunity, without even applying for it or asking for it, is a really exciting thing.”
Both Gonzalez and Solis were brought into the program on the day that they signed their Teach Nevada scholarship acceptance paperwork.
“We’re going to have our undergrad training, and then we’re going to have this NITEP training, so that’s just additional experience for us to put towards these kids,” Solis said.
As a NITEP fellow, students will receive an annual stipend that grows from $2,500 as a freshman to $10,000 as a senior.
“During that period of time, their responsibilities to the program and to the schools where they teach increase each year,” Metcalf. “And as they get to those upper levels, they’ll play an increasing role in mentoring folks who are new to the program.”
This year’s cohort is made up of five freshmen and five juniors, all of whom are from Nevada, but one important piece of the program is to look beyond the state’s borders for promising talent. Future cohorts will be made up of 25 students recruited from around the country.
“If you bring someone here who is already licensed, they tend to come only so they can get a job,” Metcalf said. “They have a tendency to leave and go back home because they have no investment in the community. With this program, we’ll spend that four years getting them to buy in and invest personally into the community, and what is has to offer.”
Borek has launched a full national search for students. He’s attending college fairs in New York and Chicago, visiting high schools in the greater Boston area, and is establishing relationships with high school guidance counselors in Southern California.
“This year we can really go out and execute the full plan,” Borek said.
Nonetheless, the first cohort will play a key role.
“The 10 students this year are going to be really important in designing the program, the infrastructure,” Borek said. “During the first year, we’ll draw on student voice as we continue building out the program and the first full group of 25 is going to be joining a more well-run machine.”
It’s a thrilling prospect for Gonzalez.
“Like Dr. Borek said, it could take any path,” Gonzalez said. “We could really mold this program to be what we want it to be.”