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In Houston Magnet, District 'Grows' Its Own Teachers

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HOUSTON--It's 9 A.M. and Rosa Marroquin is teaching a vocabulary lesson to a class of 1st graders at Dodson Elementary School, located in an inner-city neighborhood on this city's east side.

Her student's heads are bowed over their papers as she strides confidently up and down the rows of desks perusing the children's work and reading aloud the words they are to enter into their workbooks.

She stops for a moment beside a child who is having a problem and, squatting down to the student's level, whispers some words of encouragement.

From her mannerisms and calm demeanor, one might assume that Rosa is the regular classroom teacher.

But in an hour, she will be seated at her own desk at another school not far from Dodson where she is finishing her final year of high school.

Rosa is one of 160 high-school students enrolled in the Austin Senior High School for Teching Professions, a pioneering magnet program launched here five years ago for students with an interest in becoming teachers.

Her teaching at Dodson is a school requirement. All senior spend two hours a morning four days a week as interns at one of five inner-city elementary schools, putting into practice what they have learned through the four-year program and getting a taste of what teaching is really like.

Like many other school systems around the nation, the Houston Independent School District is experiencing a critical shortage of classroom teachers.

This school year, the district has operated with more than 400 unfilled teaching positions. District officials expect to have roughly 1,700 vacancies to fill by next fall.

Moreover, while the district's minority population is growing rapidly--particularly its Hispanic enrollment--it is having an increasingly hard time finding minority and bilingual educators.

Anticipating these trends, Billy D. Reagan, the former superintendent here, devised the idea of creating a magnet program that would encourage and prepare students to become teachers.

The idea, said Jay Spuck, the coordinator of the magnet school and one of its principal architects, was "to grow our own teachers.''

"We wanted to spark in our high-school students the desire to investigate teaching as a profession,'' Ms. Spuck said in a recent interview. "In Houston, we had magnet programs for aviation, law enforcement, the performing arts, and the health and engineering professions. Why not a magnet program for the teaching profession?''

In 1982, the district received a Ford Foundation planning grant to pursue the idea. An advisory committee made up of district officials, teachers, counselors, and representatives from local colleges of education worked during the 1982-83 school year to design the program.

The magnet school--which is actually a separate program within a larger comprehensive high school--opened its doors the following year with 68 freshmen and sophomores drawn from various parts of the city.

Although the Houston program was the first of its kind, according to school officials, similar programs have started in other urban areas, such as Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Situated in the heart of one of Houston's Hispanic neighborhoods, Austin Senior High School has a total student population that is more than 85 percent Hispanic.

District officials believed that by locating the college-preparatory program within a predominantly Hispanic community, they could address two problems at once: the low college-going rate of the school system's Hispanic students--which falls far below that of other student populations--and the shortage of bilingual and inner-city teachers.

District officials hoped to build a stronger interest among Hispanic students first, in obtaining a college education, and beyond that, in pursuing a career in teaching.

"Part of our mission,'' Ms. Spuck said, "is not only to recruit talented students into teaching, but to take these students and put them into an urban school.''

"Because these students in the magnet program have gone to school in an urban environment,'' she noted, "they will have the skills to cope with the unique problems of teaching in an inner-city environment.''

"They understand at-risk students,'' she added. "They understand the community and have a sensitivity to it.''

Of the 160 students currently enrolled in the magnet school, approximately 75 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent are black, 10 percent are white, and 5 percent are Asian.

Roughly half of the students in the program live within Austin's attendance zone. The other half have chosen to attend Austin instead of their neighborhood high school specifically because of the magnet program.

To get into the program, a student must have a C average in junior high school, a record of good conduct and attendance, and a desire to explore a career in teaching.

They 'Get Inspired'

Still, some of the students who enter the program do so not because they want to become teachers, but because they want the academic benefits a magnet school provides.

"There are some kids who just basically want to get into a magnet program and don't really know that teaching is what they want,'' said Craig Crebar, a teacher-technologist in the magnet school. "But as they go through the program they get a feel for teaching and get inspired about it, and realize it is something they want to do.''

Rosa was one of those students. She had wanted to go to the district's magnet school for business administration but "settled for Austin.''

She said she had always "liked to work with kids,'' but was not really interested in teaching "because of the money.''

That has changed, however. "It doesn't matter how much I get paid,'' she said, "because I now see how rewarding it is.''

The senior internship has made a big difference, the student said. "I notice that the kids look up to me, and like and appreciate me and everything I do,'' she said. "And that has made me like and appreciate what I am doing.''

She now plans on becoming a bilingual elementary-school teacher.

'I Want To Teach'

For other students, the program has bolstered a strong, longstanding desire to become a teacher.

"I chose to come to this school because I want to teach,'' said Serena Fountain, a senior who entered the magnet school in the 10th grade. The program, she said, has given her "a chance to see if this is really what I want to do.''

"It has made me feel even more firmly that I want to be a teacher,'' she said.

One big advantage of the program, those affiliated with it say, is that it gives students a feel for teaching and for education, in general, before they ever get to college.

"It helps the kids decide at an early time, before they invest a lot of money in education, whether this is really something they want to do,'' said Anita Sepulveda, a social-studies teacher in the magnet program.

She said she often tries to call attention to her various teaching techniques in her magnet classes.

"Sometimes, I will stop and ask them why they think I taught something the way I did rather than some other way,'' she said.

The Curriculum

At the heart of the magnet-school program is a four-year curriculum that meets most college and university entrance requirements.

Students enrolled in the program must complete four years of English; three years each of science, mathematics, and social studies; two years of physical education; and two years of a foreign language.

This core curriculum is supplemented by five specialty courses, which Ms. Spuck calls "the meat of the program.''

These courses include:

  • A 9th-grade course on computer literacy and educational applications, in which students are taught computer terminology, programing skills, computer applications for education, and the ethical and legal aspects of technology.
  • A 9th-grade course, designed to orient students to the teaching profession, that includes units on teacher's interpersonal skills, multicultural awareness, and school law, governance, and finance.
  • A 10th-grade course on current issues in education, in which students discuss such controversial topics as bilingual education, values education, and the legal rights and responsibilities of students.
  • An 11th-grade course that helps students get ready for college. In it they prepare for college-entrance examinations, review college-admissions literature, examine teacher-certification requirements, and learn how to manage their time.
  • The senior-year internship.

'Teacher's Point of View'

"We try to make the students aware of the difficult issues in education that they will face when they get out there,'' said Cindy M. Templeton, a technology teacher at Austin who also teaches the magnet program's current-issues and college-preparation courses.

"They begin to see education not from a student's point of view, but from a teacher's point of view,'' she said.

Robert Houston, associate dean of the college of education at the University of Houston, agreed, saying the magnet-school experience gives students an advantage when they get to college.

Role Models

"The school provides these prospective teachers with some experiences that really do give them a head start on others who have not had the training or the opportunities to teach,'' he said. Many of the magnet school's graduates have gone on to the University of Houston, according to Ms. Spuck.

Most of the program seniors interviewed here said the internship has been the highlight of their magnet-school experience.

The district pays them $4.50 an hour for the time they spend working in the classroom. "It gives them a sense of pride and identification with the school district,'' Ms. Spuck said. "And having been employees of the school district, we are selfish enough to hope that they will go through a teacher-training program and return to us.''

But, she added: "We don't need to wait for the benefits, we see immediate rewards.''

She described, for example, how one former intern would lug his thick calculus and physics textbooks into his elementary classroom with him each day. When she asked him why, he said that he wanted the students to see him with the books.

"He felt that he was serving as a role model for these potential at-risk students,'' Ms. Spuck said. "By bringing in his physics and calculus books, he was saying, 'Look, I have made it in high school. I'm taking these difficult and advanced subjects. And you will be able to take them, too.'''

The interns, said O.D. Curtis, the principal at Dodson Elementary School, which has participated in the internship program for the past three years, are "like big brothers and sisters'' to the younger students. "They want to succeed for them, they want to show them that they can learn.''

Most 'Still Interested'

This year's seniors will be the program's third class to graduate. More than 50 students from around the district will enter as freshmen next year, Ms. Spuck said, adding that this influx of new students will put the program's enrollment near its current 200-student limit.

It is too early to tell just how many of the school's alumni will actually become teachers. According to Ms. Spuck, more than 90 percent of its 85 graduates to date have gone on to college. Its first graduating class will be juniors next year.

The program is tracking these individuals. "Most have indicated that they are still interested in teaching,'' Ms. Spuck said.

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