Teacher is in a class by herself

Honor: Bel Air Middle School's Jessica Smith is among a group of instructors deemed `meritorious' by a regional collaboration of educators.

February 13, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jessica Smith, a first-year teacher at Bel Air Middle School, belongs to an elite group - she's among the first generation of teachers to receive recognition from the Mid Atlantic Regional Teachers Project.

Smith, 22, who teaches health and physical education, is one of 192 teachers from three states and the District of Columbia to receive the "meritorious new teacher" designation from the teachers project, a regional collaboration of educators.

A news briefing was held on Capitol Hill recently to honor the first batch of meritorious teachers. Smith was one of about a half-dozen teachers who were able to break away from their classroom duties to be there.

Also attending were Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, superintendents from the other participating states and Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican.

Because of the designation, Smith can teach in several states and the district without applying for a license in each one. "I can automatically teach in Maryland, in Washington, D.C., in Delaware and in Virginia," she said. Reciprocity deals are being forged in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Smith, who grew up in Forest Hill, has no plans to leave Bel Air Middle School, but she likes knowing she can move around. She also likes that the designation shows she is in the top echelon of young teachers.

"It's something, obviously, if a principal or someone from the county sees that they have the meritorious certification, it just shows right away that you have these high standards," said Smith, who graduated from the University of Delaware last spring and began teaching in the fall.

Ginny Popiolek, Harford County schools' supervisor of health and elementary and middle school physical education, said she didn't know about the meritorious teacher designation when she hired Smith, but she thinks the program is a great idea. She said Smith is proving to be an excellent teacher with leadership qualities.

The Mid Atlantic Regional Teachers Project began in 1998 when education leaders from participating states met to discuss how to attract and retain good teachers. The idea was to remove some of the red tape that can create barriers and hassles for teachers. The founders were Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the district; New Jersey and Virginia joined later.

"The states came together because they wanted to see if there were some regional approaches that would solve the teacher quality and the teacher supply-and-demand issues in the region," said Diana Rigden, director of the project.

They decided to ease the application requirements for teachers with licenses in one state who want to teach in another state. "The way to begin that is really to work with the really high-achieving teachers so the states would not hesitate in granting reciprocity," Rigden said.

The pilot program for Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington began in 2004.

To qualify as a meritorious teacher, an applicant needed a 3.5 cumulative grade point average and 300 hours of supervised time as a student teacher. Applicants had to dig up their tests to show they scored in the top 25 percent on the verbal portion of the SAT, ACT or GRE. And middle or high school teachers must have had an academic major in the subject they will teach.

Meritorious teachers also needed to score in the top 25 percent on the content knowledge test known as Praxis II. Praxis is required for aspiring teachers in most states, Rigden said.

Popiolek said she likes the procedure because it shows that the teachers have maintained a high standard for many years, at least since taking their SATs. She noted that some future teachers could work hard during their junior and senior years and get excellent recommendations, but the meritorious new teacher designation shows a longer history of quality.

Applications were sent out to aspiring teachers who met these standards. There was no fee to apply.

In all, 52 teachers in Maryland, two in Delaware, 133 in Virginia and five from the district received the designation. Smith was considered a candidate from Delaware because she graduated from the University of Delaware, she said.

"This first year exceeded our expectation," Rigden said. The organization is sending surveys to the people involved in the project, hoping for advice to improve it, she said.

Rigden also said Delaware is rewarding meritorious teachers by starting them at a second-year salary, and she hopes other states will do the same.

Mid Atlantic Regional Teachers Project is based in the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Washington and is funded by the Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University in Pennsylvania, as well as by grants from participating states.

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