Better teachers goal of project

Founder hopes classes help close education gap for minorities

February 05, 1999|By E. B. Furgurson | E. B. Furgurson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Christopher Green of Annapolis says that his favorite experience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has been making vanilla ice cream.

"We rolled it in a can to make it soft and good," he said. "And we put a lot of sugar in it."

He is no sophomore basketball star coasting through a gut course. Christopher is one of the kindergartners from Mills-Parole Elementary in Annapolis who spend Saturdays at UMBC as part of a pilot program aimed at curing some of the ills confronting urban schools.

Project SUPPORT -- that's for School-University Program to Prepare Outstanding Responsive Teachers -- is working with Mills-Parole and two Baltimore County schools in search of a solution to an alarming gap in minority educational achievement. That gap prompted Anne Arundel County school Superintendent Carol S. Parham to appoint a study panel on that subject.

The project supports student teachers in predominantly minority schools for two years of training under master teachers 20 hours a week.

At the same time, they complete their master's degrees and then, if slots are open, teach in the schools where they trained.

John Y. Lee, professor of the Urban Education Track at UMBC, developed the project. He thinks urban schoolchildren will do better when they get better-trained teachers and more interesting classes.

Take the ice cream session. Christopher's student teacher, Tiffany Swan, said making dessert helped her reinforce regular school-week lessons on the five senses.

"Do you hear it?" she asked.

"It feels cold, Miss Swan."

The children could hear the rock salt rolling in the can, feel the cold, see the ice cream forming, smell the vanilla and, best of all, taste the ice cream.

"I try to make it real, and, therefore, more meaningful," Swan said. "It will stay with them longer."

Swan is a student, too, during the Saturday lessons. She and other student teachers try out the techniques and theories studied in education classes.

"Most teachers don't acquire these skills until they are on the job," said Swan's mentor, 22-year teacher Joyce Nixon. Nixon has taught at Mills-Parole for 16 years.

Typically, teachers with the least experience are placed in the most needy schools. New graduates are mostly white, middle-class, suburban women. Their background, and the minimal student teaching they do beforehand, usually in white middle-class schools, "does not prepare them for the realities that await them when assigned to poor or minority schools," Lee said.

The average teacher in an urban school quits after two years, according to statistics. One of Lee's students in another program he runs in Prince Georges County had 13 teachers in the first 13 weeks of school.

"That kind of turnover creates turmoil, which undermines the idea of what a school should be and causes kids to lose faith in the system," Lee said.

SUPPORT is out to stem teacher flight, prepare teachers better and give pupils more learning opportunities.

The achievement gap between white and minority pupils is a national problem. Educational performance and socioeconomic factors are related in a complicated way, educational experts say.

Mills-Parole was chosen as a test site because a high percentage of its children are eligible for the federal lunch programs and its teacher attrition rate is high.

"We try to identify schools with the greatest need," Lee said. "Mills-Parole had numbers comparable to some Baltimore City schools."

He is trying to secure funding to expand the program in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. He hopes to expand the program to Annapolis and Bates Middle schools, and to Annapolis and Tyler Heights elementaries if funding can be found.

Lee and others think the root of the problem is the nation's neglect of the poor.

"Our country continues to discriminate against the poor and people of color," he said. "It is evident in educational opportunity, quality of teachers, instructional funding, and on and on."

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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