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Published in Print: February 21, 2001, as Ideals Abound on Fast Track to Teaching

Ideals Abound on Fast Track to Teaching

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Jacqueline L. Cobbler gave up her office desk and telephone, Tamara James-Wyachai an adequate paycheck, and Bill Higgins a life of leisure, all in favor of a shabby brick fortress of a school in the South Bronx.

The three answered a call from New York City's public schools, and last month became members of the second group of would-be teachers the district has put on a fast track to certification and their own classrooms in a high-poverty school.

Since the middle of January, the thirtysomething women and fiftysomething man have been rising before sunup every weekday to walk uphill past the ornate St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church and weedy vacant lots to Public School 63. The school is the daytime home of 800 students, all of whom are eligible for federally subsidized lunches.

District officials are betting that people who have already undertaken a career or two, such as Ms. Cobbler, Ms. James-Wyachai, and Mr. Higgins, will make a significant dent in the city's huge shortage of certified teachers. The hope is that they will also help give the city a needed boost in student achievement, which by most measures lags far behind the state and national averages.

While most states have some form of shortcut into teaching for college graduates who have never taken a full load of teacher-training courses, a number of urban districts have launched their own programs in the past decade to attract career-changers.

But nowhere is more riding on that effort than here in New York City, where between 9,000 and 12,000 new teachers will be needed in each of the next few years district officials estimate. The crunch is coming at a time when district leaders are under strong pressure from the state, and the courts, to hire only certified teachers to staff city classrooms.

Much More Than Money

So far, the vein of idealism the program must tap to be successful has run deep.

Some 2,300 people applied to be New York City Teaching Fellows in the first round of the program last summer, many drawn by an advertisement asking, "Do you believe all of N.Y.C.'s students deserve a quality education?" More than 300 candidates met the program's entrance standards, which include holding a college degree with at least a B average and teaching a sample lesson, among other requirements.

The 325 graduates of that first session took over classrooms in the fall, though about 11 percent have quit their posts according to district officials. Next week, the roughly 75 members of the second group of fellows are scheduled to start teaching on their own, most at beginners' salaries of $32,000 to $34,000 a year.

After wrapping up the introductory training, Jackie Cobbler hopes to be back at PS 63, also known as the Authors Academy.

Eye-catching in a pumpkin-colored jacket and matching shoes, the former administrative assistant lined up 2nd graders on a recent school day, while explaining that when she applied to be a fellow, she was looking for a more meaningful job.

"I did not feel I was giving back anything—making reservations, answering phones, doing files," Ms. Cobbler said. "That wasn't enough for me. Also, I wanted to get my master's [degree], but I couldn't afford to pay for it."

Another teacher-in-training, Bill Higgins, also said he feels a need to give something back. But as the spouse of a successful Manhattan real estate broker, the former U.S. Navy officer and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent has fewer money worries.

Tamara James-Wyachai, on the other hand, had to think hard about giving up her pay as a community college teacher because her husband's attempt to become a U.S. citizen could hang on that steady income. "But I wanted to teach children," she said.

Like the other fellows, Ms. James-Wyachai receives a $2,000 stipend for the five-week training period, which includes 31/2 days a week of classroom time under the watchful eyes of teachers at PS 63 and two crash courses at a campus of the City College of New York. If she successfully completes the program, and if she passes two teacher-certification tests required by New York state, she will get a provisional license and a job.

A Higher Purpose

If Principal Gillian Williams has her way, she'll hire all four of the fellows now student- teaching in her school, much as she hired seven people from the summer group she got a look at while they were training at PS 63.

"I come from an alternative-teaching-program background," said the energetic, 32-year-old principal, who is a graduate of Teach For America, the Peace Corps-style program that courts bright liberal-arts graduates for urban and rural schools. "It's hard to get people with a real purpose coming into a school like this," Ms. Williams continued, "and you have to have a higher purpose because there's nothing a principal can do to compensate for the emotional and psychological drain."

Tracie Owens can tell you about the exhaustion. She came through the summer program, and now is teaching 1st grade at PS 63. "It's the hardest job I've ever had, and I was a social worker for foster kids," Ms. Owens said. "I had absolutely no idea."

And she's lucky, she added. "I'm at a school that's really supportive; a lot of the schools are not supportive," she said.

Program organizers have been busy building in more support and classroom time after throwing together the summer program. Unlike the first group of fellows, the new class will have mentors, generally at their schools, from the start of their tenures, said Xanthe Jory, the January group's project manager.

And thanks to their training assignments, they should all be familiar with the New York subdistricts in which they will work. Summer fellows often incorrectly assumed that the central office of the 1.1 million-student system, rather than officials of the system's community school districts, could resolve problems at their schools, Ms. Jory said.

Like the original fellows, the new crop takes courses at campuses of the City University of New York, where at least some of the professors seemed to have improved on courses that earlier were said to be too theoretical.

"We wanted what they learn in the field to fuel the courses," said Sema Brainin, an education professor at Hunter College in Manhattan who along with one other professor and an experienced teacher provide the out-of-school component of the training for the fellows at PS 63.

Compared with her education graduate students at Hunter, Ms. Brainin said, this group possesses more varied life experiences and includes more men.

"I think it's worth trying," she said of the teaching fellows' program. After seeing a half-dozen of the students present lesson plans in class, she believes that some will need time to grow into their new roles. But overall, she's "very optimistic" about their prospects.

"A few will be great," Ms. Brainin predicted.

Shortsighted Investment?

Fellows are expected to continue with their studies toward a master's degree, at the district's expense, once they are employed.

"It's an alternative route to certification with the same standards," insisted Vicki Bernstein, the director of alternative certification for the school system.

But critics say that a crash program like New York City's, with so little preparation before a teacher takes charge of a class, does not produce the same results as traditional training programs, even over the long run. They contend that more teachers from alternative programs quit, and that the ones that remain too often learn to teach badly.

That makes critics such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent expert on the teaching profession, wonder why New York City is pursuing "an old idea warmed over."

"None of these programs has been particularly successful," said Ms. Darling-Hammond. She said "the saddest thing is to watch how the new teachers turn on the children" when they become overwhelmed and angry, pointing to such moments captured on video and in print after the first fellows began their work. "What typically happens is that people may eventually learn to keep the kids quiet and engage them in activities of some sort, but rarely do they learn well to work with kids who struggle."

In the end, the Stanford University education professor argued, it costs less to give career-changers the preparation they need to be effective and to improve hiring practices so that fewer certified teachers slip away.

But New York officials said that while they are working to improve hiring, they don't have the luxury of lengthier preparation.

"In the ideal world, you'd never have anybody start off being solely responsible for a class without an internship, with increasing responsibility and independence as they progress," Ms. Jory acknowledged. "But this isn't the ideal, and it's a crisis situation."

Expansion in Works

For one thing, city school officials say, even if the district substantially increases the number of fully certified teachers it attracts—from the current 3,500 a year to 5,000—that will leave some 5,000 vacancies per year. For another, the district, which already spends about $20,000 to put a fellow through the program, can't afford to pay for more preparation, they say.

Meanwhile, the state is breathing down the city's neck on the issue of uncertified teachers. New York state went to court last fall to force the city to replace all uncertified teachers in the elementary schools it had designated as lowest-performing. In a court-ordered settlement, the district agreed to send newly certified teaching fellows to the elementary schools at the bottom of the heap. ("N.Y.C. Gets Reprieve From Ban on Unlicensed Teaching," Sept. 6, 2000.)

Harold O. Levy, the chancellor of New York City's schools, has chafed under a part of the settlement that requires any new certified teachers to be assigned to troubled schools, saying that the prospect of such placements has driven away badly needed hires.

To ease that problem, Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner, has urged expanding the fellows' program. "It's a particularly successful approach, and we have high hopes for it," Mr. Mills said last week.

District leaders are planning for another 200 or so fellows in the spring and a fourth class of 1,500 recruits this summer. Marketing plans this time call for a national media campaign and mailings to organizations ranging from universities to local parents organizations.

"Our message is, 'This is a job where you find some rewards more interesting and compelling than what you're doing now, and there's a real need,'" said Ms. Bernstein, the alternative-certification director.

Back at the Authors Academy, Jackie Cobbler feels that need as the 2nd graders file out of the worn but cheery classroom where she spends much of the school day.

"I'm going to be their empowerment," she said hopefully. "I have already felt the rewards teachers receive."

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 20, Issue 23, Pages 1,11

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