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Maryland College Offers Training for Teachers of 'At Risk' Youths

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TOWSON, MD.--Although they come from all walks of life and teach different subjects and grade levels in a variety of school systems, the students enrolled in Goucher College's new master's program in education have one overriding trait in common: They are looking for help.

Help in reaching students who come from drug-abusing and dysfunctional families, who are being physically abused, who are violent, or who are too preoccupied, depressed, and unresponsive to succeed in school.

At Goucher, a small liberal-arts institution just outside of Baltimore, they are learning how to work with sociologically and psychologically disadvantaged students-children commonly referred to as being "at risk" of failing in school.

In an unusual approach, the college has teamed up with the Sheppard Pratt National Center for Human Development, an outreach arm of the respected Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital in Baltimore, to offer a master's degree in education.

Most of the 36 students, who began their studies last fall, are teachers, but some are counselors, ministers, or social workers.

While many have cobbled together workable strategies for meeting their students' needs, they express a deep sense of frustration at their isolation and lack of formal preparation for teaching disadvantaged children.

Jennifer Mullin, an elementary teacher in Baltimore County, has been teaching for six years. But she did her student teaching in a wealthy school, an experience she says was of little value in preparing her for the low income school in which she now teaches.

"When I was in school," she recalls, "I don't remember all the factors now influencing children," such as drug and alcohol abuse and family problems.

"There's a lot of outside baggage that interferes with their learning," she says. "I don't think I'm doing enough for them."

'Unbelievable Situations'

Ms. Mullin and other teachers complain that their teacher-education programs left them unprepared for the realities of their students' lives.

And some say their school districts do not provide much formal assistance.

"The school systems throw you into unbelievable situations," says Lisa Booth, an elementary music teacher in Prince Georges County, Md. "We don't get much training or help. We have lots of supervisors and curriculum specialists, but it's rare for them to come into a class and say, 'Try this.' It's up to us."

The program they have turned to for some answers offers concentrations in urban education, middle-school education, and working with at-risk children.

In 35 credit-hours, all of the students will take core courses in theories of human development; the sociology of education; personality development and self-esteem; contemporary issues in education; and research methods.

They also will take two required clinical courses, one exploring the development of values and the other focusing on strategies for mediating conflict.

Along with the requirements for the concentrated areas of study, the program offers electives covering such topics as multicultural education, the sociology of the family, gender issues, depression, learning styles, and motivating the unresponsive student.

Finally, the students will complete an independent project or piece of "action research'' with their own classrooms.

The clinical courses are taught by experts from Sheppard Pratt, while the theoretical courses are taught by a diverse faculty made up of scholars from the University of Maryland's school of social work, the Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore City and Baltimore County school systems, the Maryland Department of Education, the Social Security Administration's office of medical evaluation, and Goucher College.

The collaborative approach attracted the interest of the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, which made a three-year, $150,000 grant to offset the cost of starting the program.

'We Know What Real Problems Are'

The marriage of a liberal-arts college and a psychiatric facility grew out of a longstanding relationship between the two institutions, explains Eli Velder, a professor at Goucher who directs the masters program.

The pairing allows the college to concentrate on its strengths--the theoretical underpinnings of education--while at the same time offering students the practical knowledge they seek, he notes.

It was the National Center for Human Development's success with its outreach programs on conflict-mediation and teaching at-risk students that made the arrangement seem natural, Mr. Velder says.

"The association with a psychiatric institute may seem unusual," observes Careen R. Mayer, the director of community-education services for the national center, "but we are very much into prevention, and our education arm and all of this work fits in beautifully" with Goucher's academic expertise.

"We know what the real problems are," Ms. Mayer says. "What we hear from teachers is, 'Toll me how to handle 40 of them at one time with eight [skill] levels, hyperactive kids, kids from dysfunctional families,' and all that impinging upon them in 50 minutes."

The new master's program is "certainly not a cure-all," she adds, "but it's a good step in the direction of giving teachers the support and information they need to work in a very different environment."

The core courses are designed to give students a frame of reference against which to judge the forces buffeting their profession, Mr. Velder says.

"My own bias is that we tend in education to jump on and off bandwagons,"he says. To evaluate the rapid shifts, he adds, students need to have '"breadth of background and the ability to analyze critically."

Grappling With Academic Issues

Mr. Velder teaches the class on contemporary issues in education. Students will read four authors, ranging from John Dewey to a Marxist critic of education to two "traditionalists" arguing for classical studies of the academic disciplines.

During a recent session, Mr. Velder's class pondered the difference between "schooling' and "education" and got into a spirited debate over whether students need to be taught English grammar.

The students also grappled with the implications of schools' tendency to "dummy down" the curriculum for some students, noting that the practice reinforces the country's subtle class system.

The bulk of the lesson was devoted to a discussion of Arthur Bestors Educational Wastelands, a critique first published in 1953 that takes "educationalists" to task for the demise of rigorous courses.

While the author's notion of attending solely to academics seemed appealing to the students, it was clearly viewed as impractical.

"I am wondering how you cannot deal with a kid who is being abused or not being fed or whose immediate needs are not being met," Ms. Mullin says of the book's argument. "How can you look at that, and not deal with that?"

On the other hand, she notes a bit wistfully, "It would be great to just walk in and teach."

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