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Published in Print: September 5, 2001, as Alternative Teacher Program Trains Hundreds in Ga.

Alternative Teacher Program Trains Hundreds in Ga.

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An alternative teacher-preparation program piloted in Georgia this summer, and intended to yield 200 applicants, drew thousands of inquiries, overwhelming and delighting administrators trying to alleviate a severe teacher shortage.

"We had 500 to 600 phone calls a day over a three-month time period" requesting information, said Fran Watkins, the director of educator preparation for the state's professional-standards commission for teachers. The state agency administers the Georgia Teacher Alternative-Preparation Program. "The response was just extraordinary," Ms. Watkins said.

In the end, 763 people who applied and met the state's criteria were accepted into the program and completed it, she said. Ms. Watkins said she expected the majority to be teaching in schools this fall.

The program is attractive to so many people, in part, because it provides a quick transition to the profession, she said. Participants complete an intensive, four-week orientation. Then, after finding employment through their own efforts, they enter into a two-year induction program, which includes university courses, while continuing to teach.

Critics, though, dismiss the program as a quick-and-dirty approach to teacher preparation that they contend will result in underprepared educators.

"In four weeks, you can't take even the best and brightest and turn them into the kind of skilled practitioners we need," said David G. Imig, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a Washington group that represents 735 teacher-preparation programs. "We can barely get it done in the time we are allotted."

No Extra Incentives

Like many other alternative teacher-preparation programs started over the past decade, the Georgia effort was created in response to a statewide teacher shortage.

School districts there need to fill 10,000 vacancies this school year to supplement a teaching force of 93,000 in an area of the country where the population is exploding, Ms. Watkins said. With many teacher retirements planned, and Georgia's colleges producing significantly fewer educators than needed, state officials opted to design an alternative route to attract candidates who had mastered substantive knowledge of a subject but lacked the skills necessary to teach.

"This is an option and does not replace traditional programs," Ms. Watkins emphasized. "It is another way of meeting the needs of a particular segment of society."

The Peach State's program provides no monetary incentives like Massachusetts' famed effort, which offers up one-time bonuses of $20,000, or New York City's program, which cuts $2,000 stipend checks to participants.

About 85 percent of those who took part in the Georgia pilot were changing careers, according to Ms. Watkins. Engineers applied, as did doctors and lawyers.

The state requires participants to have earned a bachelor's degree with a minimum overall grade point average of 2.5 out of 4.0 before being admitted to the program. They must also pass the Praxis I, a standardized exam of basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills, as well as a background check with a Georgia law-enforcement agency.

The four-week-long orientation and subsequent induction program are administered by public and private colleges, state agencies, and school districts.

"Those were the building blocks I needed," said Vicky Giles, 48, who recently completed the orientation at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and was hired to teach 7th grade social studies in the 12,300-student Newton County district near Atlanta this fall. "It's jumping in with both feet, but that's sometimes the best way to do things."

Ms. Giles, who worked as an administrative assistant for many years before earning her bachelor's degree, considered changing her major from communications to education before the fast-track program was announced. She opted against it because she saw the schooling as too time-consuming. Ms. Giles reconsidered when she learned through media coverage that she could be in the classroom after only four weeks through the alternative program.

Willing to Gamble

Administrators credit the flurry of press attention in the state with spurring interest in the program.

"People just didn't know that there were alternative means to teach other than going back to school" full time, said Roy J. Einreinhofer, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, based in Mashpee, Mass.

He believes the Georgia program is valuable because the state set high criteria for acceptance, and the veteran professionals it attracts are likely, in his view, to stay involved in the field longer than many recent college graduates.

The architects of the plan also point out that the program is crafted to meet the immediate, and specific, needs of districts. In some regions of the state, the orientation and follow-up training are set up for prospective science teachers, while others focus on preparing professionals to teach foreign languages.

Despite its merits, the program may fail to prepare teachers well enough for the many challenges they will face, said Mildred J. Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit organization in Belmont, Mass., dedicated to drawing more people to the profession.

"To have a doctorate is not to say that you can teach your craft to young children or even to high school students," Ms. Hudson said.

She also warns that the program may not lessen the teacher shortage. "If all these teachers decide to go into suburban communities, that doesn't alleviate the problems in high-poverty school districts," she said.

Georgia officials have not yet completed tracking teachers' placements. They are also undecided about expanding the effort in coming years.

Many school administrators hope they do, however.

"It literally gives us an opportunity to tap a whole other segment of the workforce," said John F. O'Sullivan, the superintendent of the 35,000-student Savannah-Chatham County schools. He filled 89 of the 174 teaching vacancies this school year with participants from the program.

"We're saying to them, 'We value what you've done with your life,'" Mr. O'Sullivan said. "They will change how instruction and learning take place in the classroom. I don't know quite how yet, but I'm willing to take the gamble."

Vol. 21, Issue 1, Pages 24,32

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