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Published in Print: March 2, 2005, as A Class Education

A Class Education

A partnership between Baylor University and the Waco public schools embeds every teacher-candidate—from the freshman year on—into the K-12 system.

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Flipping over the next letter card, Bekki Estrada tells the children seated at the table with her that the next round of alphabet bingo will be a bit tougher.

“This time, I’m going to make the sounds,” she tells her small group. “Mmmm.”

The kindergartners here at Bell’s Hill Elementary School look down at their boards. Those who have M cover it up with a game piece. Estrada makes the next letter sound, reminding the children to focus on their own boards and not their neighbors’.

In a patterned sweater, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Estrada bounces her knees up and down and smiles at the children as they learn. She’s at ease in this setting, as if she’s had years of experience.

But she’s not their classroom teacher. She’s a senior in Baylor University’s school of education, and one of more than 100 interns spending their final year in college learning under the guidance of a mentoring teacher in one of the Waco Independent School District’s 10 professional-development schools.

Their immersion into the schools starts as soon as they begin their undergraduate education. As freshmen and sophomores, the aspiring teachers tutor students one-on-one. By the time they’re juniors, they’re working with small groups of pupils—practicing what they’ve learned from their professors in classes often held at the school. And as seniors, the teacher-candidates are responsible for preparing and delivering entire lessons—day in and day out.

As a result, long before they have earned their teaching credentials, the Baylor students know what to expect in the classroom and what’s expected of them.

Estrada learned, for example that she wasn’t a good match for the 4th grade, in which she interned before moving on to kindergarten.

“She didn’t care for how strict she had to be,” says Alice Petrich, Estrada’s mentor. “But she’s a natural with the little ones.”

In contrast, many new teachers might only have the benefit of a traditional six-week student-teaching stint.

“I think we are creating more and more evidence of the value added from high-quality clinical experience,” says Robert J. Yinger, the dean of education at Baylor, a private, Baptist university here in central Texas.

Intern Jessica Turner, right, walks the halls of Waco High School with her mentor-teacher, Suzanne Shelton.
Intern Jessica Turner, right, walks the halls of Waco High School with her mentor-teacher, Suzanne Shelton.
—Photograph by Thomas Terry

A longtime believer in professional-development schools, Baylor had been sending its teaching candidates to Hillcrest Elementary School here for a dozen years and, until recently, to schools in 25 districts outside the city.

But in Waco’s single professional-development school, Baylor students found themselves teaching a mostly middle-class population, unlike the children in a lot of schools in this city halfway between Dallas and Austin. Their experiences were similar to teacher-candidates’ in many other professional-development schools, which have been around for years to help prepare new teachers.

That has been changed. Different from many college towns, Waco is one of the poorest cities in the nation with more than 100,000 residents. Eighty percent of students in the district get free or reduced-price lunches. So it was a good location for the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education to test whether professional-development schools, modeled after teaching hospitals, can be scaled up so that all of a college’s teaching candidates—not just a select few—can train in an urban setting.

With a $150,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations in Jacksonville, Fla., NCATE began working last year with the Waco district and two other urban university-district partnerships: the University of Colorado at Denver and the Denver public schools, and the University of North Florida and the Duval County district, which includes Jacksonville.

In addition to giving future teachers more experience, the project is intended to help produce well-qualified teachers willing to stay in urban districts.“This is different,” says Marsha Levine, a senior consultant at NCATE. “This puts the emphasis on serving the needs of the school district.”

A couple of aspects of the Baylor-Waco arrangement are unusual. The university has concentrated all its interns in the 15,000-student Waco district, which has not pleased some of those surrounding districts that used to get Baylor students. And while a full-year internship is not unusual in teacher-preparation programs, it’s more common at the graduate level—not in the senior year, the way Baylor has decided to do it.

The university accomplishes its goals by giving teaching candidates authentic classroom experience, and the schools gain by having additional instructors for academically at-risk children—with the possibility that some of those future teachers will actually choose to work in Waco after they graduate.

“We want to provide every candidate with this experience, but at the same time, to introduce new staffing patterns in urban schools where children would not be taught by inexperienced and unprepared teachers,” Levine says.

A carefully designed system of staff support—paid for by both the university and the district—has also been put in place to help guide the students through their experience. Each school has a site coordinator who handles the scheduling for the college students and a university liaison who represents Baylor, making sure the students’ teaching assignments match their degree requirements.

Each school even has a “PDS” room where the professional-development school’s interns and “teaching assistants”—the juniors—meet with professors and prepare lessons.

This marriage between the university and the district faces some challenges, however.

A substantial turnover in principals here has forced Waco officials to work harder to get schools to commit to being professional-development schools.

Dean Yinger—who initiated the program—has announced he will retire this summer, which raises questions about how much support the next dean will have for the project.

And on occasion, school administrators have had to assure parents and school board members that children attending those 10 schools are still being taught by fully certified teachers.

The children benefit, proponents say, by learning to adapt to different teachers. Most aren’t even fazed by the teaching associates, interns, and visitors who come and go.

“Rarely will you find a child who does not respond positively to having a young adult work with them,” says Rick Strot, the university liaison at Bell’s Hill Elementary and a former kindergarten teacher in Austin. “Kids love it when they get more attention.”

Sitting around some long tables in the PDS room at Bell’s Hill, about 20 interns prepare for an afternoon seminar with Strot. The scheduled topic is working with parents, but a more pressing matter needs to be discussed this afternoon. It’s Monday, the first day after a weekend in which the school’s prekindergarten teacher was struck by a car and killed after leaving church.

Members of the local news media have been at the school all day, interviewing the principal and filming video of the teacher’s pupils. Extra counselors were called in.

“This is a perfect opportunity to talk about how a school responds to an unforeseen, tragic event,” Strot tells the interns, advising them to look for a school with a “family feeling” when applying for a position. “If you’re in a school with a good principal, they have plans for when something like this happens.”

Baylor senior Britney Shaw works with a student at Bell's Hill Elementary School
Baylor senior Britney Shaw works with a student at Bell's Hill Elementary School. Seniors spend most of their time in the Waco schools.
—Photograph by Thomas Terry

It’s an issue that might never have been covered in a traditional college course, but one that the college students could face some day when they become teachers. They were even expected to take over their classrooms later that week so their mentors could attend the funeral for their colleague.

The teaching associates and interns are given opportunities not just to hone their instructional styles, but also to be involved in all aspects of school life. They attend faculty meetings, work on assessment, and get their share of the paperwork that comes with the job. They’re also welcome to take on extracurricular activities.

At Hillcrest Elementary, Lindsey Patton, an intern who plans to teach gifted and talented students, coached a team of 4thand 5th graders in a statewide scholastic competition.

Kelan Grimes, an intern at Cesar Chavez Middle School, was instrumental in getting the new school’s student council started. In fact, the interns are advised to find out what school activities they enjoy now, because as first-year teachers they’re likely to get the assignments no one else wants.

Sheri Burns, a mentor teacher at Hillcrest, says the additional responsibilities help the Baylor students learn about aspects of the job they might never learn from their professors.

“I hate that we were sending teachers out into the world thinking that you get off at 3:45, and you have June, July, and August off,” she says.

The leaders of this partnership—as well as the interns themselves—say the key to a successful experience is the relationship between the student and his or her mentor.

One way that a school can benefit from being a professional-development site is if the mentors themselves are renewed by the experience, says Patricia Marlin, the site coordinator at Waco High School.

Jessica Turner, an intern teaching 9th grade English at Waco High, plans lessons with her mentor, Suzanne Shelton, on a daily basis.

“[Turner] is the master architect,” Shelton says, showing a sense of pride. “The daily objective is really on her shoulders. She comes in the classroom with lesson plans not just for the week, but an entire unit.”

But mentors sometimes have a hard time turning instruction over to a novice—especially since they are ultimately responsible for making sure their students meet standards.

Aspiring teachers at Baylor University listen to a presentation about an upcoming job fair.
Aspiring teachers at Baylor University listen to a presentation about an upcoming job fair. One of the goals of Waco's district-university partnership is to encourage the interns to accept jobs in the urban district once they graduate.
—Photograph by Thomas Terry

Grimes, who plans to teach U.S. history, is in the middle of a lesson on the Monroe Doctrine at Chavez Middle School.

“Do you guys remember Andrew Jackson? He’s about to become president,” she tells the 8th graders, as she writes some dates on an overhead-projector transparency.

Grimes proceeds to talk about Jackson’s being sent to Florida to settle some problems with Indians moving into Georgia when her mentor teacher, who is walking around the back of the classroom, begins to add her own comments. It happens again, and again.

Later, after class, Grimes says she understands her mentor’s need to make sure nothing is left out. “She has high test scores, and it’s very hard for her to give up control,” Grimes says.

But allowing the interns to teach is how they learn, says Betty J. Conaway, who chairs the curriculum and instruction department at Baylor. “We can’t teach everything in K-12,” she says. “We have to give them enough contact with the real world so they know how to problem-solve.”

Above all, the interns are expected to be able to work through those first-year jitters and learn how to handle moments when the children misbehave or are disrespectful.

“You’re going to cry when you’re a new teacher,” says Alfredo Loredo, the principal at Chavez Middle School. “Why not cry in your intern year, when you have that support?”

The Baylor interns—especially those who are teaching at the high school level—also learn about keeping a professional distance from students who might listen to the same music they do or shop in the same stores.

Turner, the Waco High intern, has turned down invitations to have coffee with students.

Keith Frazee, an intern in a senior English class at Waco High, says he talks sports with students, and hopes that he can inspire others to go to college. Athletic and blond, Frazee modestly rejects the idea that the high school girls in his classes are attracted to him.

“They’re not in love with me. They’re all in love with Mr. Clark,” he laughs, referring to another intern.

While they value the experience their students are receiving, some members of the Baylor faculty say Waco’s professional-development model involves too much time in the field and not enough opportunities to learn theory and methods in the classroom.

“When they’re out in the schools, they’re learning on their own,” says Elden R. Barrett, a curriculum and instruction professor. “If you throw them in the deep end, they’re going to learn to swim, but it’s not going to be pretty. I think that’s what we’ve done.”

Barrett says he’s still a proponent of field experiences, even serving as the university liaison at one school, but he thinks a stronger connection needs to be made between what the teacher-candidates learn in class and what they practice in the local schools.

Barrett also questions the wisdom of training all the education school’s students to work in an urban setting. Many of the undergraduates, he notes, come from middle-class, suburban homes and may very well return to those kinds of districts to teach.

Rick Strot, the university's liaison, works out of each of the 10 Waco professional-development schools.
Rick Strot, the university's liaison, works out of each of the 10 Waco professional-development schools.
—Photograph by Thomas Terry

To address some of those concerns—which are not Barrett’s alone—discussions are taking place about possibly moving weekly seminars back to the Baylor campus.

It’s a shift that’s bound to make some Baylor students happy.

When Krystal Goree, the director of the education school’s office of professional practice, surveyed the interns, they were almost unanimous in saying that while they wouldn’t trade the year’s classroom experience for anything, they longed for more time on campus.

“They miss that interaction with their friends,” Goree says. “I’ve even had a couple say to me, ‘I’m paying to go to college, so I ought to be able to go to college.’ ”

Frazee says he doesn’t feel that much of a conflict, and still finds time to be involved in a fraternity and serve on Baylor’s student court.

Still, he adds, “there are times when I’ll ride my bike on campus, and feel like a student again.”

Vol. 24, Issue 25, Pages 28-31

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