Aspire to expand residency program for teachers in training

July 23, 2012

Aspire Public Schools is significantly enlarging its Teacher Residency program, an intensive teacher training model that San Francisco Unified and about two dozen urban school districts nationwide have adopted to better prepare new teachers from day one in the classroom.

Under a teacher residency program, teachers in training do a full-year internship under individual mentor teachers while they take courses for their teaching credential. In exchange, usually for a small stipend and a loan forgiveness agreement for the cost of obtaining a teaching credential, the teacher residents agree to stay with the sponsoring district for at least three or four years once they become certificated teachers. In most teacher credentialing programs in California, aspiring teachers take courses full- or part-time at a university over one or two years and spend  six to eight weeks as a student teacher before applying for a teaching job. Some California State University campuses also offer year-long teacher residencies, under the tutelage of one teacher, as an option.

Sara Heaps praises Aspire’s teacher residency for preparing her for her first year in the classroom.

Aspire, the state’s largest charter organization with 34 schools serving 12,000 K-12 students in six urban districts, including Los Angeles, Stockton, and Oakland, increased this year’s class by 15, to 35 residents. Some of the additional residents will be trained to teach in Memphis, where Aspire will open its first schools outside of California, in 2013.

San Francisco Unified’s teacher residency program, a partnership with the Stanford University School of Education, the University of San Francisco, and AmeriCorps (a federally funded program that sends corps members into low-income schools), also is beginning its third class, with 24 teachers in training.

Because teachers enter their first year of full-time teaching after their residency year more confident and skilled, teacher residency programs have been praised as a model for teacher retention and preparation. However, because most rely on foundations and federal dollars to cover the extra expense, the programs are small, producing a tiny proportion of first-year teachers nationwide.

Urban Teacher Residency United, a Chicago-based network of the programs, says that 85 percent of residency graduates remain in the classroom after three years, compared with the national average of 50 percent of new teachers who leave within five years. Only one of the 19 teachers who entered the classroom in 2011 won’t be returning this fall, said Heather Kirkpatrick, Aspire’s vice president of education.

Aspire is able to be selective, with only one of six applicants hired, Kirkpatrick said. About 40 percent of the teacher residents are pursuing teaching as a second career; the majority are recent college graduates.

For those candidates, Aspire and other residency programs compete with Teach For America, a national program that places top college graduates in high-poverty schools and challenging environments after only five weeks of summer training; TFA members are asked to make only a two-year commitment.

Sara Heaps was one of the lucky ones who had a choice between a residency at Aspire and TFA after receiving an undergraduate degree from Stanford. She chose a teacher residency at Aspire, because, she said, “a residency focuses on preparing you as well as possible to be effective when entering the classroom.”

Two years ago, in the first cohort of teacher residents, Heaps spent the year “observing an amazing seventh and eighth grade science teacher,” Hillary Mills, at the East Palo Alto Charter School. The year was intense and demanding – spending “a lot of time with another person in a highly emotional job,” Heaps said.

The program gradually shifts responsibility for the classroom from mentor teacher to teacher resident over the course of the year, starting with tutoring students and helping with lesson planning and working up to running the class unassisted. She gained teaching skills she would have struggled with independently as a first-year teacher, Heaps said, such as how to lead inquiry-based learning, which requires students to explore science concepts in a lab on their own.

Mills got her through crises, too, like the time toward the end of the residency, when students “knew I didn’t know what I was doing and started testing me.”

“I hit a breaking point. I would have broken down in front of students if she (Mills) wasn’t there,” Heaps recalls. “She gave me tips, and I got right back in there. Nothing like that has happened again.”

The other component of the teacher residency is obtaining a preliminary teaching credential. Through an affiliation with the University of the Pacific in Stockton, cohorts of teacher residents from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and, this year, Central Valley meet weekly in seminars and take courses online. The advantage of teacher residency programs is that residents become familiar with the culture and curricula of the specific district or charter organization they will work in, cutting the learning curve.

“I had a very different first-year experience than other first-year teachers,” said Heaps, who taught eighth grade science and high school physics this past year at Aspire East Palo Alto  Phoenix Academy .

“I knew what to expect. There were no big surprises.”

Aspire hasn’t gotten standardized test scores from the cohort that just finished its first year in the classroom, but Kirkpatrick said conversations and evidence from principals convinced Aspire the program is working.

San Francisco Unified, like Aspire, would like to double the size of its program. The challenge is costs. Both San Francisco Unified and Aspire believe in the efficacy of the program and say teacher residencies save recruitment expenses caused by churn. But compared with simply hiring first-year teachers, they’re expensive. Aspire pays the teacher resident a stipend of $13,500 and the mentor teacher $3,000 plus an extra $500 in classroom supplies. It also will gradually repay the cost of getting a Master’s degree in teaching.

Both San Francisco Unified and Aspire are relying on philanthropic and federal dollars to support the program, and that’s not likely to change any time soon in cash-strapped California. It’s also not uncommon for teacher residency programs. The Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago, affiliated with Chicago Public Schools, is one of the few to receive funding from its school district.

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