Catherine Santoro stood amid the swirl of other students interested in becoming teachers and focused on what Renee Kovach, human resources director at the Little Rock School District, was saying.

"I want to get to know [the school district] to see if that’s what I want to do," Santoro said.

Santoro is among 30 students who are candidates for the Partnership for Transition to Teaching Program at the University of Central Arkansas. UCA received a $2.3 million federal grant this past October to recruit mid-career professionals to be science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers for the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts.

The grant pays $5,000 to each student who wishes to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching and become a licensed math or science teacher. Those science and math teachers will work in one of the two districts and teach grades seventh through 12th, according to a UCA brochure.

This summer the first students, including Santoro, began taking graduate school courses. The program kicked off in full gear this fall semester, said Diana Pounder, dean of the College of Education.

On Thursday afternoon, university officials held an informal meet-and-greet event to let students talk to UCA officials. Students asked questions about what exams they need to pass to be licensed and what courses they should take. Kovach attended to let people like Santoro learn about the school district.

Santoro said she is still deciding whether to participate in the partnership program and get $5,000 to serve three years at the Little Rock district. She had moved to Arkansas from New York about three years ago and knew little about the district, she said.

Little Rock and North Little Rock districts are the only two districts involved in the transition grant program, but Pounder hopes to change that and expand to other school districts with more than 20 percent low-income students, she said.

The partnership program can change education in Arkansas for the better by increasing the number of math and science teachers in the state, UCA President Tom Courtway said. The grant could produce 120 math and science teachers in four years, Pounder said.

"This is the most critical need in our state in education," Courtway said.

The teachers are different than traditional teachers because they already earned an undergraduate degree in math or science and worked in a different field before turning to teaching. Pounder said many of those professional decided to become teachers because they felt the wanted to do something that "makes a difference."

Gary Davis, for example, worked in financing, ran his own business in Northwest Arkansas and had an undergraduate degree in business finance before turning to UCA to become a teacher. Currently, he works as a bus driver and substitute teacher for Conway Public Schools and hopes to have his provisional teaching license by this October.

"I was looking for something else to do," Davis said. "I never realized I was good at [teaching] and enjoyed it so much."