PETERSBURG, Va. -- At Lakemont Elementary in Petersburg, the students in Kendrick Mason's classroom are ready to recite their numbers, both big and small. During their first week of school, Mr. Mason's class of about 15 students dives into math, writing out numbers in the hundreds, thousands, and ten-thousands.
To his class, he's "Mr. Mason," but what they don't realize is how much they have in common. Mr. Mason is a student, too.
The senior is one of five students at Virginia State University currently part of the HERO program, also known as the "Hybrid Education Residency Opportunity."
Education students at VSU, like Mason, lead their own classroom in a Petersburg school while also balancing their schoolwork.
"I stop every couple of days and say, 'I am a teacher.' They're asking for Mr. Mason. There are 14 or 15 faces looking at me waiting on the next step, like, what are we about to do? But I feel incredibly prepared for it," Mason said. "I feel like I have all of the resources necessary. And I think we're doing alright in Room 16."
It's a win-win for both teachers and VSU students.
Timothy Williams, who works in Human Resources with the school district, said the cohort of young students making their stay in Petersburg schools is filling the holes left wide open by worsening staffing shortages.
"Fired up is an understatement. I am overjoyed. Excited," Williams said. "The fact that we have college students coming in to teach students, it makes my heart pound. We are in a teacher shortage. The fact that they're coming out and we're helping them in turn, makes this so beneficial."
It's also a win for VSU.
Dean of VSU's College of Education Willis Walter said nationally, fewer college students are interested in becoming teachers.
But thanks to opportunities like the HERO program, that's not the case on their campus.
"Virginia State's been really successful in bringing in students that are interested in becoming educators. The last three to four years, we've doubled the number of students incoming as freshmen to Virginia State that are interested in teaching," Walter said.
Walter said there are educational benefits to hiring younger teachers who can more closely represent a school's student population.
"Research shows that students that have teachers that look like them have more success in the classroom," Walter said. "They understand the content a lot better, and the connections are made earlier so that they can really make a connection with the curriculum that they're trying to learn."
For Mason, it's about more than collecting college credits. It's about being someone most of his students can look like and relate to.
"There aren't a bunch of Black male teachers in classrooms. Two percent, I believe. So the opportunity to be a Black man in a classroom and be that role model to Black students, not even as a career role model, but as a person," Mason explained. "I show up every day, I go through the same steps they do, and I'm here to make sure that they make it."
"I see Brooklyn and I see Savannah, and I see Quo-Kawan and I see Keyshawn. I see them every day. They're waiting on Mr. Mason. That is the most amazing thing to know," Mason said. "That they're waiting on tomorrow and I've to make sure tomorrow happens for them."
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