EAST MOLINE — Clarice Brown was terrified when her teacher, Heather Monson, pulled her aside after class one day in the fall of her senior year of high school. Was she in trouble? Was she about to be told bad news?
Monson, a history teacher at United Township High School, had something else in mind: She wanted to know if Brown was applying to be a Golden Apple Scholar, a hefty and prestigious scholarship for Illinois students who want to become teachers.
With Monson’s support, Brown filled out an application. Months later, she got the good news: She had won.
Brown then returned the favor, paying forward the help she received by helping her own peer, Kathryn Weber, a student at Augustana College, apply for the scholarship.
This spring, Weber learned that she too had won.
In the past three years, six recent UTHS students have become Golden Apple scholars, including three who won this year.
Individually, the achievements are a testament to hard work. Together, they show how a group of outstanding young women has supported one another to the benefit of their community.
Founded in 1985, Golden Apple is an Illinois nonprofit that rears educators. Its 32-year-old scholarship, the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois, supports hundreds of rising teachers with up to $23,000 in college tuition, immersive summer professional and educational opportunities, job placement assistance and ongoing mentoring.
This year’s scholarship cohort was its largest ever, with 268 scholars from a statewide pool of more than 1,500 who expressed interest, according to Alan Mather, Golden Apple president.
The scholars are Illinois residents who attend Illinois colleges and universities and agree to work in an Illinois “school-of-need” for five years. (A school-of-need is defined as one in which at least 30% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch or one in which the combined percentage of its students who approached, met or exceeded state standards is no higher than 60%.)
According to Mather, at least 30% of the scholars must come from outside of the Chicagoland area.
“Over time we’ve had scholars from every county in the state,” he said. “It’s all Illinois all the time.”
Like most states, Illinois is suffering from a teacher shortage. UTHS Superintendent Jay Morrow told the Dispatch-Argus last year that he has noticed the number of teaching applicants drop “significantly” over time. “In the past, when a social studies position opened, we would typically have 50 or more applicants. That has dropped at least in half,” Morrow said.
The Golden Apple scholarship helps the state retain teachers, as scholars are required to attend a partner Illinois college or university and work at least five years at an Illinois school-in-need.
“Besides the money that we get, the training that we get is fantastic,” said Brown, who wants to be a history teacher. “Most student-teachers go into their first year of teaching with 400 hours of in-class time. We will go in with 1,000.”
Five of UT’s scholars said they wanted to teach wherever they were needed. But several confessed that their dream is to return to the area.
Some, like Madelyn Morrow, of Silvis, have wanted to teach since childhood.
“I always wanted to be in a career where I could help people,” said Morrow, a new Golden Apple scholar who will enter Illinois State University in the fall.
Other UT scholars, like Karlee Stapf, a junior at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville from Hampton, realized she wanted to teach at the end of high school. Stapf was the first of her peers at UT to win the scholarship, two years ago.
“If I didn’t get the Golden Apple, I probably wouldn’t teach,” Karlee said, citing the $23,000 sum as well as the personal and professional support. Now, she said, she’s “100% committed” to using science education to motivate the youngest generation.
“I love how it solves problems, how it explains the world,” Stapf said about science curriculum. “You can inspire students with it. Especially for women in STEM, encouraging students at a younger age is important to me.”
One study from last year found that female educators in Illinois earn $7,775 less per year on average than men.
Monson has mentored many of UT's Golden Apple scholars, who refer to her as their “hero” and role model.
“She made a difference to me, even if I didn’t have her in the classroom,” said Brandi LaFountaine, a new Golden Apple scholar who will enter Illinois State University in the fall.
Monson learned about the Golden Apple scholarship a few years ago when her own daughter become a scholar. She's made it her mission to see at least one UT student win the scholarship each year. To do so, she and colleagues have offered their help through the application process, which one scholar described as “extremely strenuous.”
The scholars, in turn, hope to serve as models and mentors for the next generation of students, particularly young girls who might not have as many examples in their own lives.
“You can be that mentor for someone who doesn’t see themselves in the field,” said Stapf. “You need that support system because sometimes you don’t have it.”
In discussing why they wanted to teach, all of the young women cited a sense of service.
“Young kids model their behavior after what they see,” said Morrow, who aspires to be a high school English teacher. “If I can use English to help students find their own voice, regardless of their gender or race, then I’ve succeeded as an educator.”
The recent Golden Apple scholars from UTHS include Stapf, at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville; Brown and Weber, at Augustana College; LaFountaine and Morrow, entering Illinois State University; and Taylor Crew, at Western Illinois University-Macomb.
In becoming teachers, the young women are also battling stereotypes — not just about their gender, but also about their profession and their home state.
“When I tell people I want to be a teacher, that I want to be a coach, and come back to the Quad-Cities and help kids as others helped me, a lot of people said I shouldn’t because of money, or because 'the generations are getting worse and worse,'” LaFountaine said.
Five of the scholars said they had been told to ditch Illinois and to teach in Iowa instead. They also said that they had been told by friends, relatives, even school administrators that they were “too smart” to be a teacher.
It’s a backhanded compliment that frustrates the scholars, who feel duty-bound not to give up on their home communities.
“It might not be the most lucrative career, but you’re influencing other people to reach their best potential,” Morrow said. “You’re in it for other people.”
By recruiting Illinois' best-and-brightest to teach, the Golden Apple scholarship benefits the whole state.
“We need to elevate the teaching profession, and that’s what Golden Scholars does,” Mather said. “This is a profession that truly needs top quality students.”
The students and staff at UTHS hope that their successes can inspire others in the Quad-Cities to enter the field and, with luck, to win scholarships.
“Every single job needs a teacher,” Weber said. “You can’t have a job without a teacher. Someone helped you get there.”