First stop for urban teachers-in-training

For aspiring teachers, the road to the classroom has been well paved for generations: Earn an education degree, spend two or three months as a student teacher, and report for duty.

But increasingly, the student-teacher portion of that model is viewed as neither long enough, intense enough, nor comprehensive enough. The result, some say, is that ill-prepared teachers not only shortchange students, but often abandon the profession.

In Chicago, though, they're trying something different.

Spurred on by a venture capitalist-turned-philanthropist who has long acted as a guardian angel for Chicago's public schools, the district opened the Chicago Academy in September to train teachers over the course of a full school year.

The academy, a brick former high school in a leafy neighborhood northwest of downtown, will place two student teachers in each class, where they will be mentored by hand-picked master teachers.

"In a school system with a 3-1/2-billion-dollar budget, 25,000 teachers, and approximately 600 schools, we've never had a teacher-training facility," says principal Don Feinstein. "Think of an apprentice. What craftsman learns their trade in 12 weeks? We feel an intense, 10-month training program in a school dedicated to improving the quality of teaching is the way to go."

This fall, the dozen new teachers in the 308-student academy are on their own. It isn't until February that the first student teachers will arrive - for a traditional short-term period. Next fall marks the start of the first full-year program, though some of the unique aspects of the academy's approach have already kicked in.

For starters, teachers have two hours of professional development every afternoon. They work through issues that arise in class, learn new skills, and come to understand the unique talents and capabilities of their colleagues. Next fall, these sessions will help establish a mentoring matrix that allows trainees to learn from not only their master teacher, but all the teachers at the school. And the extra time spent improving skills is rewarded: Teachers are paid for an eight-hour day rather than a six-hour day.

In order to facilitate the school's unique mission, the district made it the first contract school in Chicago's history. The 10-year contract positions the academy somewhere between a public school and a charter school: all district regulations and policies apply, and teachers and administrators draw their salaries from the district, but the vision is maintained by an independent, high-powered board of directors that comprises a variety of civic leaders.

Although the stated goal of the academy is to ratchet up the quality of teaching in Chicago public schools, the experiment also touches on the issue that continues to be education's 800-pound gorilla: the nationwide teacher shortage. Some believe the solution to the problem is simply more recruiting, but others say retention is just as important.

In Chicago, the average teaching career is about 3 to 4 years by one estimate, shorter than that of a pro football player. Leaders expect that better training will turn teaching from a job into a career and thus keep people in the profession longer.

The academy's approach will be an "antidote to the typical policy response in states with rising teacher shortages, where we do nothing more than five, six, maybe eight weeks of training in the summer and then we throw folks into classrooms without the preparation that is so necessary to be successful from the get-go," says Barnett Berry, a senior consultant to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. "The attrition rates in those programs are enormous - even catastrophic."

One reason student-teaching programs have always been so brief is simple: money. A two- to three-month internship in a classroom has traditionally been rolled into a college-degree program. Asking a student teacher to spend a year in training without pay would likely scare off not only recent college grads, but career-changers as well. To counter that concern, the Chicago Academy is raising private funds to pay trainees a modest stipend while they learn their craft.

The 1930s-era building housing the academy has even been modified to accommodate its teacher-training mission. Virtually all of the classrooms have a small adjoining anteroom with mirrored, one-way glass that will allow a teacher to step out of the classroom and observe the student teacher alone with students.

Such observation is expected to facilitate practical skill-building that student teachers need but often don't receive: learning to pause so students can absorb a concept, refraining from calling on the same child too frequently for answers, learning how to move about the class rather than remain stationary.

Although it's conceivable that parents might view a teacher-training school as providing an inferior education - in that trainees are, by definition, unseasoned - the reverse seems to be true among a sample of academy parents. They tend to focus on the numbers: two student teachers assigned to each master teacher equals an 8-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio, which is virtually unmatched in Chicago.

"The school that my children were going to had large class sizes - over 30 - and usually one aide," says Debbie Patricelli, who has two children at the Chicago Academy. "With only 24 in each class here, and eventually two student teachers, that's going to be a better situation for my kids, no question."

Principal Feinstein says initial skepticism by parents has more than melted away. "We had parents saying, 'I have an honor student at a magnet school, why should I pull him out and put him in your school?' But when they got to meet the teachers at a community meeting, they were very impressed with them and their attitude and their energy." Indeed, there's now a waiting list for pupils, and administrators occasionally field inquiries from aldermen and state senators calling on behalf of parents trying to get their children admitted.

"Educators feel the model we've developed is the way teacher training ought to go," says Martin "Mike" Koldyke, a businessman and a towering figure in Chicago school reform. "Nobody else we know of has adopted this model, but we believe this is a pattern for how all teachers ought to be trained down the road."

Policymakers are divided on the value of such training, Mr. Berry says. There is a "somewhat naive, somewhat insidious" belief that all a teacher really needs to know is their subject matter and the rest will take care of itself, he says.

"You may know algebra up one side and down the other, but you may not have a clue as to why a kid understands Algebra or doesn't, and that's what good teacher education can do."

For the moment, the future of the Chicago Academy appears secure. So far it has students in prekindergarten through third grade, and the plan is to add a grade per year up to eighth grade. While political or other factors are difficult to predict, Koldyke estimates that if the academy model proves successful, the city could set up seven or eight replicas to train teachers for all its schools.

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