The first time Denbigh High School teacher Brittany Lahr gave a project development seminar — on how to create simulated architectural landmarks out of items found in your classroom — she was momentarily taken aback when she looked out at her audience of other teachers from Newport News schools.
Lahr, a 2007 Menchville graduate, saw a handful of her former teachers settling in to learn from her experience in the classroom.
“At first it was a little strange,” Lahr said. “I thought to myself: ‘What do I have to offer them? They taught me everything I know.’ I have my old teachers reaching out to me with questions.”
She’s gotten used to it. After all, this is what she signed up for — literally — when she accepted the inaugural Wayne D. Lett Scholarship from the Newport News Education Foundation.
It’s a $10,000 scholarship given to a graduating senior from Newport News who plans to become a teacher, and in addition to the money it guarantees the recipients a teaching job in a Newport News school for their first three years out of college.
It is one of many ways the foundation — a nonprofit founded in 1992 and operated by business leaders around the city — works to benefit the division’s students and teachers. By offering something to both the graduate (financial assistance and a job) and to the schools (homegrown talent), the Lett scholarship — named for a former superintendent — fits into the foundation’s mission “support Newport News Public Schools’ efforts to prepare students for their future.”
“It’s important that we have really good teachers in our schools to excite and inspire our kids to be more engaged in education and in the community,” foundation president John Shifflett said. “Some of the best we can possibly get come right through our own system, and through the Lett scholarship we can get them to come back and teach our kids about their story.
“By giving them financial assistance in exchange for a commitment to come back to Newport News, it solves a lot of things for you. You have the local connection of a successful kid coming back to be an inspiration, and we keep some of our best and brightest each year.”
Last month Shifflett went before the School Board with a proposal from the foundation, asking the schools to help with the initial funding of a full-time position within the school division as a fundraising liaison who would serve to strengthen the connection among the foundation, the schools and the community.
The board approved the proposal, creating a new job with a salary in the $60,000 range. Shifflett said he expects the position to become self-funding within the first few years.
Until it reaches that point, the foundation’s proposal calls for the division to fund 70% of the salary and benefits in each of the first two years, and — as necessary — 37.5% in the third year and 25% in the fourth. The foundation would pay the remainder of the salary.
Applications are currently being accepted online through Newport News Public Schools.
In addition to the Lett scholarship, the foundation provides “mini grants” of $50 to $500 to teachers seeking “seed money” for innovative classroom initiatives; hosts an annual Salute to Success Student Recognition Dinner; and operates programs to help provide direction for the public schools.
“On a very personal level,” Shifflett said, “there’s gratification in being able to help teachers do better job, help the system be a better system, to help our community. In a larger sense, we see this as workforce development. The workforce of the future needs to be skilled and able to work as members of a team. The key to our economic prosperity as a community has its roots in public education.”
The most recent recipient of a Lett scholarship, Warwick graduate Briahna Switzer, is currently a freshman at Christopher Newport University. She is excited to know that when she graduates, she will not have to worry about a difficult search for employment.
She will have a job waiting for her.
She already describes it as an opportunity to give back.
“Right now I’m thinking about teaching elementary school or possibly working with special needs kids in pre-school,” Switzer said. “Either way, it’s a very secure feeling knowing already that I’ll have a job in my hometown.”