School districts across the state are constantly battling the revolving door of teachers.

Low wages and lack of respect for the profession, among other reasons, exacerbate the teacher- shortage problem in Arizona. As many districts scramble to combat teacher shortage, Sahuarita Unified School District is trying something new.

The district is partnering with the University of Arizona’s College of Education to identify and groom students from Sahuarita, those who graduated from the district’s schools or live in the community. Through a one-year teaching fellowship, those students receive teacher training, mentoring, classroom experience and stipends.

“We determined that we need to pursue creative and collaborative solutions to the challenges that we face,” said Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela.

It’s fact in the education field that teachers who are invested in the districts they live in tend to stay longer, he said. The goal is to select teacher candidates who would get hired by the district upon completion of the fellowship and stick around.

The stipends are “modest,” the superintendent said. Fellows are given $1,000 stipends from the College of Education. When they begin student-teaching, they get another $1,000. Sahuarita provides $400 once during student-teaching and another $400 at the end.

When those fellows get hired as teachers for the district, then they would get another $400 after their first successful year, $600 after the second and $1,000 after the third.

“We believe that we can build the capacity of our teaching core by intentionally tapping people with connections to our community and working with the university to customize and cooperate in the formative training,” Valenzuela said.

Rita Hardy, one of the Sahuarita teaching fellows in a sophomore English classroom at Walden Grove High School, asks students what it takes to write a good book review. Several students’ hands rise up.

In the back of the classroom, Abigail Cochrane, an English teacher and Hardy’s mentor for the fellowship, observes quietly, jotting down notes from time to time.

The two of them spend a lot of time together, whether it’s for class planning or bouncing around ideas, Cochrane said. It’s a learning experience for both of them.

“As a teacher, you don’t get to watch others teach very much,” the mentor said.

Hardy is in a one-year master’s program called Teach Arizona to get her certification in secondary education. She spent the fall semester observing and collaborating with her mentor while also taking three UA classes and raising four children, three of whom attend Sahuarita schools.

“It’s a balancing act for sure,” she said. Next semester, she will be regularly teaching two periods a day.

When she heard about the fellowship from one of her professors, she said it seemed like a great fit for her. She said she especially enjoys the level of support from fellows and others who are involved in the fellowship, including district officials and UA professors.

Hardy said she and her family, who moved to Sahuarita about six years ago from Richmond, Virginia, don’t have any plans to leave. When she finishes the program, she hopes to continue on in the district as an English teacher.

“This is our community,” Hardy, the teacher fellow, said. “We plan on being here for a long time.”

For UA’s education college, the fellowship is an opportunity for its students to graduate and stay here instead moving away to find a job elsewhere, said Renée Clift, associate dean. “We want people from the area who are going to be committed to staying in the area and we want them to eventually become mentor teachers.”

Students who are interested must apply and be admitted to the UA’s teacher education program to become a fellow. The applications for next year’s group begins in February.

The college of education eventually wants to grow the program to include other districts in Tucson, Clift said. UA officials are in the process of talking with Tucson Unified School District to do something similar.

“There are grow-your-own programs and have been off and on,” she said. “This partnership, I think, is unusual. Everybody who is participating in it is actually pretty excited about it.”

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 573-4243 or On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung