POLK COUNTY, Fla. -- The Polk County School District and Polk State College are teaming up to take on a teacher shortage.

  • Polk County Schools, Polk State team up on teacher program
  • ELITE program would fast-track students to become teachers
  • High school students can earn associate degree while in high school

The two institutions said there is a national teacher shortage of more than 100,000.

"We have to have teachers in the classroom, and if we can't find them, we have to start looking for other ways," said Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd at a signing ceremony Monday for the new Establishing Leaders In Teacher Education program, or ELITE.

Under the program, students from Bartow, Haines City and Ridge Community high schools could get an associate degree through Polk State College by the time they graduate high school. They would then be fast-tracked into a Polk State teacher education program for two years, where they would get a bachelor's degree. 

That means they could be hired as Polk classroom teachers as 20-year-olds.

Byrd said the students in the program would get special guidance to make sure they were properly prepared for classroom duties as younger-than-normal beginning teachers.

"I feel confident, because we are going to make sure we give them the support to run that classroom when they enter it," she said.

About a dozen Ridge Community High students were on hand for the signing ceremony with Byrd and Polk State President Dr. Angela M. Garcia Falconetti. Several of them said they were interested in joining the program.

"It sounds like a really great program," sophomore Jessica Schweinhard said. She thinks she has what it takes to run a classroom filled with students as a 20-year-old. "If you show them that you are in charge, then yeah," she said.

The Polk School District said it will need to hire hundreds more teachers by 2022, because it expects an additional 5,000 students in the next four years.