Jacqueline Pruitt was assessing the semester syllabus for her literature class when she realized she would be reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet for her upcoming exam.

The Austin resident asked her eldest son if he was familiar with the play. His response sounded vaguely familiar to Pruitt.

“‘Maybe you should just read the play, mom,’ was what he said,” joked Pruitt. “It was so funny because I told him, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to say that to you but you can’t say that to me!”

As a recipient of a Grow Your Own teacher grant, the lifelong Austin has found returning to school to be challenging, but well worth the effort.

She was introduced to the Grow Your Own Illinois teacher program two years ago. The state program was created in 2004 to recruit residents to become teachers in low-income school districts with a high teacher turnover. She’s currently taking classes in preparation of her new career. A chance encounter with a former friend at a health club led Pruitt to the program.

“She was telling me about this program that she was involved in that offered forgivable loans of $25,000 to students that agree to teach at least five-years in an under-served school,” said the 45-year-old.

The program seemed perfect for Pruitt, who wanted to return to college but couldn’t afford the high cost in tuition. She also wanted to work in the field of teaching, which would allow her to “give back to the West Side.”

“I have worked for 15 years as a social worker and my passion lies with working with younger kids,” said Pruitt, a single mother of two sons. “When I finish, I would be interested in teaching in Austin or North Lawndale.”

Originally, Pruitt attended Daley College, one of the GYO’s 16 affiliate schools and organizations in the state. But she later transferred to Wright College, also a GYO affiliate, to take classes not offered at Daley.

Pruitt’s case worker, Rosetta McPherson, learned about the program in 2004 when she began working as a data entry specialist with community organization ACORN. She was there as the state-funded program was in its early stages of development.

McPherson, 36, became a co-host coordinator for GYO last September, following the promotion of her business associate, Angela Mojeckwu, who recommended her for the position.

“Angela felt that with my experience as an educator at Olive-Harvey College I would work well with a group of GYO candidates as an adviser and counselor,” she said.

McPherson manages 30 students in her cohort group, providing them the necessary access to tutors, academic advisement and financial assistance services when needed.

The Grow Your Own program is currently funded through a $3 million statewide grant. It began as a method to prevent teachers within low-performing schools from fleeing once they obtained employment at suburban schools. In the long-term, the program aims to place 1,000 teachers in Illinois’ hardest-to-staff classrooms by 2016. Along with Wright and Daley College, Malcolm X College on the West Side is another GYO-affiliate institution where candidates can attain a two-year degree.

Afterward, students attend an affiliate four-year university, such as Chicago State or Illinois State University, to obtain their bachelor’s degree. The GYO has branches of the program across the state. The North Lawndale branch the Pruitt belongs to, however, is looking to send its first batch of GYO graduates into classrooms by 2010.

Pruitt has two-and-a-half years remaining until graduation and says that school is much different now than when she was a student in her teens.

“It is a real balancing act, you know. With work and school, I have to be twice as focused as I was before,” she said. “However, to have this opportunity is really a blessing.”