Aspiring teachers go to head of the class

U.S.-funded program lets participants learn while working in city schools

Program lets aspiring teachers move to the head of the class

October 03, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Deneen McDonald was in the Army for five years and spent another 11 working at other jobs before realizing teaching was her calling. Similarly, Tia Crawford-Dailey worked in numerous fields, including the life insurance business for nine years, before she decided to make a career switch that led her to the front of a classroom.

Both women, now teachers in Baltimore public schools, got into teaching through a program involving three area universities that has brought hundreds of instructors into the city system's classrooms - and generally has been successful in keeping them there. Since the inception of the teacher education program, now in its fifth year, 85 percent of the teachers involved, or 640, remain in city schools.

Despite its enviable track record, the program - called Project Site Support and run by the Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County - is in the final year of its federal funding. Since 1999, the program has been financed by a $12.6 million federal grant.

"We're looking to continue this [program] with existing resources and also looking for additional funding," said Ralph Fessler, dean of John Hopkins' School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.

The program, a nontraditional approach to training teachers, takes career switchers as well as recent college graduates who did not major in education and immerses them in a classroom experience as teachers. At the same time, the neophyte instructors take education courses and receive close mentoring from university faculty as well as veteran teachers at their schools.

"We have to make sure [the new teachers] gain the knowledge to be successful in the classroom and that they have the feeling that they're making a difference in the students' lives," Fessler said.

Most participants get free tuition, a total of $10,000 to $13,000, and a paycheck as a classroom teacher while they work toward a master's degree. Once they finish the academic portion of the program, which lasts about two years, the teachers pledge to remain in the city school system for another three years. Teachers who leave the job early are required to return a pro-rated portion of the free tuition.

A small percentage of program participants follow other paths, including a one-year internship where the classroom role is more limited, and an undergraduate alternative at Morgan State that allows seniors there to quickly shift gears and become teachers.

Over the past five years, the program has recruited and trained a substantial number of teachers who have remained in Baltimore public schools. For instance, from the first year's crop of 73 recruits, about 60 are now in their fifth year in the classroom. This year, 168 of 580 new teachers hired in the city were from the program.

Retaining teachers is a challenge in urban school districts, experts say. A reason that teachers frequently leave is because they often do not get the support they need, said Shelley Ingram, director of the Urban School Partnership in the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education at Johns Hopkins.

"In national surveys [of teachers], it's a common theme that, `We're not getting the support to do our jobs,'" Ingram said.

To address that problem, one of the program's key components is the multilayered support network that includes peer and university faculty mentorship during the first two years of teaching.

"When you're teaching, you're dealing with 30 or 40 or even 100 personalities every day," said Marlene Greer-Chase, who coordinates the Morgan State program. "You really need ... someone you could discuss your situation with, someone who can give you information, give you support, make recommendations and just to encourage you to continue what you're doing."

For McDonald, a sixth-grade social studies teacher, the desire to share her education led her into teaching. The 37-year-old mother of twin boys earned a bachelor's degree in history from Coppin State College in 2001.

"Once I got the [history] degree, it wasn't enough that I knew it," McDonald said. "I wanted to share my knowledge. It's like finding a treasure and not wanting to keep it to yourself."

So, McDonald began her master's degree program at Morgan State soon after earning her undergraduate degree. Now, the Owings Mills resident is in her third year at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School in South Baltimore.

"I don't see myself doing anything else. I don't even see myself teaching on the collegiate level," said McDonald, whose initial goal was to become a college professor. "It's not a burning desire any more."

Crawford-Dailey, also 37, is a new fifth-grade teacher at Gwynns Falls Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore who started teaching last month.

As Crawford-Dailey takes evening courses twice a week at Johns Hopkins and receives mentoring from university faculty and her peers, she says she is better prepared each day for her students. For the former life insurance saleswoman, moving to the classroom is more than a simple change in professions.

"The company where I worked had become almost mechanical," she said. "You get up, you agree to do what you have to do but I didn't feel an ounce of doing more than that. [Now], I'm feeling alive."

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