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Preston Thorne recruiting would-be educators to USC

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Preston Thorne, recruited to the University of South Carolina nearly two decades ago, is now  persuading a new generation to choose the Gamecocks.

Thorne, a former USC defensive tackle who came to Columbia from Summerville in 2000, is back on campus in a different role. As an outreach coordinator and student success coach in the College of Education’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Thorne is recruiting talent to the university — to star in the classroom, not on the football field.

“Teaching is coaching, and coaching is teaching,” said Thorne, who taught social studies at Blythewood High School for 11 years after graduating from USC 15 years ago. “All my best coaches were great teachers, whether they were in the classroom or not.”

Former Gamecock defensive tackle Preston Thorne is leading two programs at the University of South Carolina designed to tackle South Carolina's teacher shortage. (Photo/University of South Carolina)Thorne is spearheading two programs aimed at drawing more talent to an educational field losing teachers at an alarming rate: Apple Core Initiative, a four-year scholarship program that targets historically underrepresented backgrounds; and Athletes to Educators, a collaboration with the university’s athletic department designed to promote education as a career choice for student-athletes.

“We’re trying to recruit teachers the same way athletes are being recruited,” Thorne said. “We want to recruit the best and the brightest to come and join the profession.”

It’s a profession in need of an infusion. Approximately 7,300 teachers did not return to their same jobs for the 2018-19 school year, a 1% increase in departures from the previous year, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement’s S.C. Annual Educator Supply and Demand Report. More than 5,300 of those left teaching altogether.

“Perception is the biggest challenge,” Thorne said. “I’ve had the fortune of traveling around the state and seeing how many great and talented educators there are. (In) teaching, especially high school, I got a chance to see my rewards walking around. . … If you do your job properly, you get a chance to play a positive role in the development of a citizen of  the world.”

Thorne is spreading that message in dual roles at USC. In his work with Apple Core, he meets regularly with the 10 freshmen in the just-launched program’s first year who live in the same residence hall and participate in workshops aimed at easing the transition into college life.

“When I came, I was an athlete, so I sort of had a built-in group of friends,” Thorne said. “One of the biggest realizations that we’re figuring out is how big the social aspect is, especially for first-generation students. Just trying to find your way and figure out your spot on a college campus is challenging.”

Three of the 10 members of the inaugural program are first-generation college students, said Margo Jackson, the College of Education’s director of student diversity, inclusion and engagement and Apple Core co-coordinator. She said three are black males, a historically underrepresented teaching population that Thorne embodies for participants.

Nationally, black men make up just 2% of teachers, while students of color make up about half the nation’s public school enrollment from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“When you talk to many students of color and you ask them about the number of teachers of color they had throughout their K-12 experience, many of them will say one or two,” Jackson said. “If we don’t see diversity in the classroom, then we won’t see diversity when we look at higher levels in education. We need to have diversity at all levels and aspects when we’re making decisions for our children in South Carolina.”

Apple Core participants, selected by a College of Education screening committee, receive a $3,000 scholarship each year of the four-year program. Jackson said the initiative, which will include a study abroad component for third-year students, also focuses on building “culturally responsive” teachers who deepen their understanding of South Carolina history with field excursions to places such as the Penn Center, an educational center and former school for slaves on St. Helena Island.

While the Apple Core program wants to reach would-be teachers across the state, “we’re trying to pull teachers from those rural areas so that we can train them and they can go back home and make a difference in their community,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the first year of Apple Core, though exciting, has been a learning experience, and she’s already identified tweaks to make in year two. She’s also working to find more funding sources.

“As we get more exposure around the state, we’re hoping that more businesses will contribute to the program,” she said. “It’s investing back in the state, because we’re investing in our teachers.”

On a recent afternoon, Thorne took a break from stuffing envelopes targeting Apple Core recruits to talk about his new role at his old stomping grounds. While Thorne said he misses teaching “every day,” he’s excited about finding ways to reach would-be educators.

Groundwork is still being laid for the Athletes to Educators program, which will coordinate education class schedules and requirements with athletes’ already demanding workloads and make athletes aware of education programs. Thorne said Athletes to Educators is preparing to survey all USC athletes about their interest in and perception of jobs in the education field.

“It seems like it would be a natural thing, because a lot of athletes do want to continue a career in coaching,” said Thorne, who pointed out that many schools require head coaches to be licensed teachers. “When they’re thinking about what they want to do with their lives, a lot of them want to stay involved with their sport of choice, but they might just not know a way to do it. So we’re offering them that way.”

Thorne met Jon Pedersen, dean of the College of Education, while promoting a children’s book Thorne co-authored with former Gamecock teammate Langston Moore. (Just a Chicken Little, the follow-up to Just a Chicken, addresses the perpetual “Sky is falling” mindset of USC fans and has an April 6 release date, Thorne said.) Now, he’s bringing the same passion he once used to stop running backs on the gridiron to increase the talent pool in the educational field. 

“Every student deserves to have that one teacher that they really, really relate to, whether it’s because that teacher loves Star Wars or they really like soccer like you — whatever it is,” Thorne said. “The more we can create a wider pool, I think we have a chance of reaching more students.”

This article first appeared in the March 25 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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