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SOU grad earns rare teaching fellowship

A Southern Oregon University graduate and former chemist is receiving a teaching fellowship worth $175,000 as he studies to become a high school science teacher.

Jesse Stonewood, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 2006, returned to SOU this month to pursue a Master of Arts in teaching, thanks in part to a hefty gift from the New Jersey-based Knowles Science Teaching Fellowship. "Teaching has always been something in the back of my mind," said Stonewood, 34, who has other teachers in his family.

After graduating six years ago, Stonewood spent two years as a chemist for Medford's Neilson Research Corp.

But after getting married and having two daughters of his own, Stonewood, who lives with his family in Talent, said he became more interested in becoming a teacher. "I felt a pull towards education," said Stonewood, who began the 13-month program this month.

Stonewood will receive a monthly stipend for five years, significant help to pay his way through SOU and annual contributions to classroom materials once he is a teacher.

The fellowship, which seeks out students who have real-world experience in their chosen field, also allows Stonewood to communicate with current and former recipients to talk about teaching.

As part of the fellowship, Stonewood will have to meet annually with Knowles Fellowship representatives to renew his fellowship and work to continually improve his own teaching style.

"Self-reflection is a really important part of the teaching practice," said Knowles. "You're constantly learning."

Begun in 2002 as a way to encourage quality teachers to remain in the classroom, the Knowles Fellowship has been awarded to 200 new teachers over the past 10 years.

Stonewood was one of two recipients selected statewide this year, one of 34 chosen across the country.

There was a rigorous application process, Stonewood said, which included a weekend-long trip to Philadelphia full of individual and panel interviews.

Stonewood said the fellowship was the most generous and long-lasting financial support he found when searching online for sources of help for school.

"They offer a depth of support," said Stonewood, who is pursuing credentials to teach high school chemistry and integrated science.

The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation specifically targets people interested in becoming teachers in the subjects of biology, physical science and math.

Designed to retain new teachers in the profession by offering five years of assistance, the foundation believes that investing in strong teaching candidates is more worthwhile than continually hiring and training new teachers.

According to the foundation, nearly half of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, dramatically reducing the average experience of educators in the country.

The average teacher in 2007 had just two years of experience, while in 1987 the average teacher had 14 years of experience, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

Stonewood said that he wants to shift people's focus off the negative aspects of the education system and help them to realize the good things happening in classrooms.

"I want people to understand there are positive things happening in schools," said Stonewood, who wants to erase the idea of eliminating the "bad teachers" and instead have schools focus on promoting and retaining the good ones.

Stonewood will begin student teaching at South Medford High School this fall, where he will work in three levels of chemistry classes.

"I have an interesting challenge ahead of me," said Stonewood, who hopes to stay teaching in the Rogue Valley after receiving his credentials.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.