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Published in Print: April 30, 2003, as Community Colleges Offering 4-Year Teaching Programs

Community Colleges Offering 4-Year Teaching Programs

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Stephanie Shihadeh talks about her teacher-preparation program with such gusto, you'd think she was doing a commercial. The 29-year-old rattles off the pluses: brilliant but accessible professors, low student-to-teacher ratios, fascinating classroom debates, and meaningful internships.

"I'm honored to be here," she adds, hands folded atop a shiny new table in a college classroom nearly wallpapered with whiteboards. "It is everything I expected and more."

It may come as a surprise, then, that Ms. Shihadeh is earning her degree at the school of education at St. Petersburg College, which only one year ago was still a community college.

The school here became one of the first two-year institutions in the country to offer bachelor's degrees in education when it transformed itself into a full-fledged, four-year college last fall.

The impetus for the change came from state legislators, who said they wanted to grow a new and more diverse crop of teachers during a severe personnel shortage, while providing more opportunities for Floridians to earn bachelor's degrees.

Critics, though, complain that the college is duplicating services when the state is strapped financially. They also worry that the program is less rigorous than those offered in other four-year institutions, and that it will lack some of the essential services that more- established schools provide.

The school of education's debut comes as part of a national movement to offer four-year teacher-training programs, in one form or another, on community college campuses.

To date, community colleges in 22 states offer teacher preparation, according to a preliminary survey to be released in June by the Center for Community College Policy, located at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Nineteen of those involve hands-on experience in K-12 classrooms. Raw data, however, has been collected for only about 30 states.

St. Petersburg College, located minutes away from the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico, already was offering entry-level education classes, so it made sense to expand the program, said Tom Furlong, the college's senior vice president of baccalaureate programs and university partnerships. (The law that gave rise to the college's teacher program also encourages bachelor's programs at such sites to train nurses and technology experts.)

"There's a group of people that would like to be teachers, and they aren't the people who would go to traditional programs," said Don Sullivan, the former state senator who introduced the law and now serves as St. Petersburg College's vice president for innovation and program development.

"If you really want to solve the need for teachers in Florida, you're going to have to bring education out into the communities."

The community college survey found that while models vary, four-year programs are cropping up where there is both a need for teachers and a shortage of opportunities in higher education, said Marga C. Torrence, the project director for the Education Commission of the States' study.

Meeting Demand

Maryland was the first state to offer associate's degrees in teaching, it found. California has developed partnerships in which students take entry-level education classes at community colleges and transfer to four- year institutions to finish their bachelor's degrees. In Texas, community colleges offer an alternative-certification program for people who have already earned bachelor's degrees. Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, and Nevada have initiatives similar to the one run at St. Petersburg College.

"In light of the No Child Left Behind Act, things have just exploded," Ms. Torrence said of the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which puts a premium on qualified teachers.

Like proponents in Florida, advocates elsewhere say community colleges can generate huge new pools of educators, many of whom are members of minority groups. Last fall, a report by Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit group in Belmont, Mass., estimated that such colleges could provide more than 25 percent of the estimated 2.4 million new teachers needed over the next decade. ("Report Touts Community Colleges as Source of Teachers," Oct. 30, 2002.)

Still, the reaction to St. Petersburg College's teacher education program suggests that shaking up the higher education establishment isn't going to be easy.

"It is clearly a competitor," said Harold R. Keller, the interim dean of the college of education at the University of South Florida. The university has a regional branch near St. Petersburg College that is greatly expanding its teacher education program. Meanwhile, the university's main campus, only 45 minutes away in Tampa, is one of the largest producers of precollegiate educators in the nation, graduating more than 600 such students annually.

"From a legislative perspective, I think, it is creating more costs," Mr. Keller said, noting that the two schools already have gotten into bidding wars over faculty members. "Is this the best way to spend our money?"

Catering to Adults

St. Petersburg College's mission has always been—and will continue to be—educating the James Wilsons of the world.

The 31-year-old is juggling a full course load and a full-time job as an assistant manager at McDonald's with raising three young sons. Yet the college has made it relatively easy to meet all of his responsibilities, the prospective high school mathematics teacher said.

The institution "is going to produce better teachers ... because we're battle-tested," Mr. Wilson said. "We've got life experience we can bring to the classroom."

Sally S. Naylor, the dean of the school of education, says the college purposely structured the program to cater to busy adults and has invested in ensuring that they both graduate and take jobs in K-12 classrooms.

To help build a sense of community, students study in cohorts of up to 30 people for their junior and senior years, she said. Each cohort attends classes only two or three days a week and survives eight-hour days together. Practical experience in schools is scheduled into those blocks but some additional hours are necessary to meet the college's requirement. By graduation, each student must have completed over 700 hours of classroom observation and student teaching.

"I've been able to apply everything I learn directly to the classroom," said Na'alie Humphrey, who returned to Florida from Pennsylvania once she heard SPC was offering a degree in elementary education.

That was intentional, Ms. Naylor said. From the beginning, the college reached out to local school districts to learn the qualities future teachers need, she said. Because surrounding districts are short on teachers in elementary education, special education, math, and science, those are the only areas of study currently offered.

Teachers from Pinellas County put together the college's writing curriculum, Ms. Naylor said. Others teach college courses. The private Independent Day School in Tampa lends staff members to act as teacher-educators, for example.

"These people are top trainers ... because [their lectures] are based on what we're doing in K-12," Joyce Buric Swarzman, the day school's headmaster, said of her teachers. "What we do is translate research into practice."

Many local administrators and educators praise the college for its work.

"They seem to be very committed to getting it right," said Sharon Sisco, the principal of Cypress Woods Elementary School in Palm Harbor. "There's a lot of formative work—that has not been my experience with every program. There are very, very close and clear communications. They come in and regularly meet with students."

Serving a Need

But not everyone is so sure that Florida has made a wise move in extending teacher preparation to community colleges.

"It is very difficult for a community college to build up a college of education," said Ana Maria Schuhmann, the dean of the college of education at Kean University in Union, N.J., and the chairwoman of the board of directors of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, based in Washington. "My first choice would be to have the two-year college work with a four-year college. They have the history and the experience." Most proponents of creating new programs are not teacher-educators, but community college presidents, who see the new schools of education as money-making endeavors, she contended.

"My guess is that they're partially out to serve their students, but also they want the cost of the tuition," she said.

But Mr. Furlong counters that the need for a teacher education program at St. Petersburg College was dire. More than three-quarters of the teachers hired in Pinellas County are recruited from outside the Sunshine State, he said, and the vast majority of those who do hail from Florida weren't educated in Pinellas.

The county, in fact, ranks as one of the lowest in the state in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded, but produces more associate's degrees than almost any other—indicating that there's a pool of students who would likely continue their educations with the right opportunities.

"We view this as mission enhancement," Mr. Furlong said, "not mission creep."

Both Miami-Dade Community College, the largest two-year institution in the nation, and Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., recently won approval to offer bachelor's programs in education, but it is unlikely that others will follow suit, said J. David Armstrong, the chancellor of the Florida Community College System.

Florida has a long history of a "two plus two" system, he said, in which students transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions.

At St. Petersburg College, administrators point to their regional accreditation as proof of the quality of their product. The Florida Department of Education also is reviewing the school of education this spring, as is required of new programs vying for accreditation. The institution plans to seek approval from the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education as soon as it graduates it first 175- student class next year.

"The long and short of it is that the quality of teachers they're going to turn out is going to be dependent upon the quality of the teacher-educators and leaders they're able to bring into the program," said Dorene D. Ross, the interim director of teaching and learning at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.

Educators at the college, who are working hard to make their program the best it can be, already have at least one convert. According to Ms. Shihadeh, they're shining.

"It is," the aspiring teacher said, "like going to a private school with public tuition."

Vol. 22, Issue 33, Pages 1,22-23

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