Aspire Public Schools, the state’s largest charter school system, is convinced that its intensive year-long residency program is the best method to train teachers, but it’s expensive. By launching Aspire University, the charter organization hopes to make the program pencil out.
Assuming it receives the regulatory approval, Aspire University will grant preliminary credentials and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction to teachers at the same time that Aspire teachers mentor them. By making teacher credentialing an affiliated operation, Aspire says it can double the size of its program, which produces new teachers who, Aspire says, thrive in its classrooms from day one.
The Aspire Teacher Residency is one of several dozen residency programs nationwide, including a few in California, in which teacher candidates work for a year under the guidance of mentor teachers before assuming control of their own classrooms. During that year, they also take courses for a preliminary teaching credential.
Aspire’s apprentice teachers also receive a stipend and health insurance from Aspire. The teacher candidates earn their master’s degrees through the University of the Pacific, which currently runs the academic part of the program.
Entering its sixth year, the Aspire Teacher Residency started with a class of 20 fellows and has expanded to 50 this year in two operations serving Aspire’s schools in Northern and Southern California. The goal, when Aspire University takes over academic instruction from the University of the Pacific in three to five years, is to double residency enrollment. At that point, it will be producing 70 to 80 percent of Aspire’s new hires every year, according to James Willcox, who will retire this fall after seven years as Aspire’s CEO. Aspire operates 38 schools, with 35 in California, serving 14,600 students.
“We strongly believe that teacher residency is the model of the future,” Willcox said. “We’ve got the data to prove it. Those teachers come out better prepared and more highly effective. They get better faster and they stay in the job longer because they’re more effective, we believe.”
In traditional university-run teacher preparation programs, teacher candidates spend anywhere from 200 to 500 hours in the classroom during a year of taking university courses – fewer classroom hours in some alternative programs – to get a preliminary teaching credential.
In residency programs like Aspire’s, teacher candidates go through a rigorous selection process. Aspire says 10 percent of its applicants are accepted. They work four days a week under the tutelage of an Aspire teacher, taking on more responsibilities over the school year. They take online courses and meet one day each week with other Aspire apprentice teachers and their university instructors. At the end of the year, Aspire places them in an Aspire school.
Both Aspire and their new teachers say the system works.
Aspire says the residency program is worth the investment, currently about $22,000 per fellow, including the $13,500 stipend for the apprentice teacher, $3,000 to the mentor teacher and the gradual assumption of some of a discounted tuition of $10,000 for a master’s degree and credential for those teachers who stay with Aspire. Aspire says that teachers who complete the residency – about 90 percent – are placed in Aspire schools, where they significantly outperform other first-year Aspire teachers. Aspire said that 81 percent of the 83 teachers who completed the program during the first four years have continued to teach in the Aspire system.
“We strongly believe that teacher residency is the model of the future. We’ve got the data to prove it. Those teachers come out better prepared and more highly effective,” said James Willcox, CEO of Aspire.
Most graduates of traditional teacher preparation programs seek work wherever they can find it. Aspire teaching fellows work in Aspire schools, where they learn Aspire’s school curriculum, teaching style and culture in classrooms with the low-income, minority children they will teach. Aspire operates charters in Los Angeles, Stockton, Modesto and in low-income neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
“You are learning how to teach in the context that you’re going to be teaching. For us, that’s important,” Willcox said. “There’s English-language learners, poverty, violence. There’s all the things that come with being in a low-income community. You need to learn whether you want to do that, you need to learn how to teach in that environment.”
Feeling at home
For Bianka Mariscal, 24, that means literally working in her neighborhood. Mariscal is a 2nd-grade teacher at Aspire East Palo Alto Charter, a K-8 school that she attended as a child and where she was mentored as a resident teacher two years ago.
By observing and working closely with 3rd-grade teacher Sarah Portnov, Mariscal felt confident and prepared. “When it came time to take over the class for a week, I didn’t feel jitters,” she said.
There was a close marriage of academic and classroom work in the program, she said. “You could apply the courses on how to be a teacher with what you were doing. The seminar was on schedule with what was happening in class.”
Mariscal, a graduate of Mills College, in turn, could share insights with the children she taught while serving as a role model for them. “I really understand the struggles and things in their lives – why they are tired in class” and why one child acted out to get attention because he wasn’t getting attention at home. “I know what it was like for a family not to be home, because they had to work late.” Children, she said, “are open to talking to me; they know my background.”
Aspire is the largest of several teacher residency programs in California. Another is High Tech High, a charter school network based in San Diego, with 13 schools. Its High Tech High Graduate School of Education offers a two-year intern program leading to a teaching credential and a separate program leading to a master’s degree in education leadership. Fresno Unified has started a teacher residency program for 25 science and math teachers through a federal grant and financial support from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.
Because they are expensive to run, teacher residency programs have remained small, dependent on foundation and government money. By creating its own credentialing and master’s degree program, underwritten by tuition revenue that previously went to other universities, Aspire is confident it can be scalable. By retaining teachers longer, it will also save the $8,000 to $25,000 it loses in training and recruiting expenses each time a teacher leaves, said Heather Kirkpatrick, Aspire’s chief people officer.
The accreditation process is challenging, and approval from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges could take five years, Kirkpatrick said. Once in business, Aspire University could establish teacher residency programs for other public school districts. Districts would design their own programs, not adopt a replica of Aspire Public Schools, Willcox said.
“Imagine going to a superintendent and saying, ‘Give me your 10 best teachers, and we’ll teach you how to clone them,’” Willcox said. “’You’re going to decide what it means to be a successful teacher in your school system. And we’re going to help you have more of those.’”