PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Pasco County School District is hoping some of its current students can help fill vacancies in the classroom. The district said it currently has 361 teacher positions open.

The New Teacher Academy is a way to combat the ongoing teacher shortage in Pasco schools. It’s a program that gives Pasco County high school students who aspire to be a teacher hands-on experience in the classroom. Once they graduate from college, the program guarantees them a teaching position so long as they return to Pasco.

Pasco County Schools held a “signing day” event on Wednesday for 17 students who are declaring their intent to return to teach in Pasco schools after college. They have graduated from the NTA.

“When I got to college a lot of the kids that were in my classes never step foot in the classroom before and I really got the first experience when I was young,” Elizabeth Sutton, a Pasco Schools teacher.

It’s a full circle for Sutton. She’s the first New Teacher Academy graduate to return to Pasco schools. She’s been hired as a teacher at Fox Hollow Elementary and it comes with a $1,000 bonus.

“If we can get kids an opportunity to try to out the teaching profession before they get into college, the quality of what we are getting in our future educators is so much better,” said Beth Hess, New Teacher Academy leader.

Hess said the program began six years ago with only a handful of students, now there are 170. For Emma Reiser, it’s about the opportunity.

“I feel very proud of myself, and it felt like a relief because it’s like my dreams actually coming true as I signed that paper,” said Reiser. “In the back of my head, knowing that I can come back to my hometown where I know my family will be and have a guaranteed job means the world to me.”

According to the latest data from Florida’s Department of Education, the average teacher there makes $46,649 a year, which is under the state average of $51,166.

In 2020, Florida passed a law to increase teacher salaries. $400 million was approved to raise the base pay for full-time teachers in the classroom, but not all teachers have seen those extra dollars. In March, Gov. DeSantis approved an extra $800 million to raise minimum teacher salaries. In total, the governor said he’s devoted about $2 billion to raise teacher salaries to a promised $47,500 salary since taking office.

As the county faces low teacher salaries, this November Pasco voters will get the chance to vote on whether to increase their property tax rate in support of raises for teachers and school staff.