NYC Program Fast-Tracks Teachers to Needy Schools
Facing teacher shortages, especially dire shortages in its neediest schools, the NYC Board of Education is offering mid-career professionals and recent college graduates a six-week summer teacher-training program. The accelerated program placed almost 300 new teachers in NYC schools as of February. Included: A description of the New York City fast-track certification program, a list of requirements, and a review of its effectiveness.
About seven weeks after reading an ad for a fast-track teacher-training program, Franklin Headley stands in front of a class of fourth graders at Mother Hale Academy in the South Bronx.
Headley, who had been teaching a course at Columbia University and working on a doctorate in history, is a member of the first class of New York City Teaching Fellows. The program, created by the New York City Board of Education, trains non-education majors to be teachers in just six weeks. Participants must earn a master's degree in education over two years. The city pays for that advanced degree.
For Headley, the career change has been positive so far. "The first day of school, I was scared," Headley tells EW in early February. "I felt I needed to make a good first impression. There have been disappointing days. But I've laughed with my students, and I've cried with them."
The New York City Teaching Fellows program began in 2000 to fill teacher vacancies in some of the city's lowest performing schools. Compounding the problem of recruiting teachers for struggling schools is a looming system-wide staff shortage -- about 21,000 of the city's 100,000 educators are eligible for retirement in June. Of course, they will not all retire at the same time, but the system already needs more mathematics, science, and special education teachers.
New York City's alternative certification program is one of several programs nationwide connected with the New Teacher Project. It is the consulting arm of the national Teach for America program. (See the sidebar at right for information about programs in some other communities.)
So far, two groups of non-education majors have participated in the New York City program, one last summer and one in January, putting about 290 people into classrooms. City officials plan to continue expanding the program. They hope to recruit 2,000 fellows for programs starting in May and June.
"We are looking at high-caliber people with a history of past achievement who have tackled challenges in the past," says Megan Doyle, project coordinator with the New York City Board of Education office of alternative certification.
Fellows include former lawyers, actors, and businesspeople as well as recent college graduates. To qualify for the program, participants must have earned a bachelor's degree with a grade-point average of at least 3.0. About 50 percent of the fellows in the first group were between the ages of 30 and 39.
Within a year of filling a classroom position, fellows must pass the state's Liberal Arts and Sciences Test (LAST) and Content Specialty Test (CST), which are required of all candidates for teacher certification. About 96 percent of the fellows in the first class passed the LAST and 88 percent passed the CST on the first try, Doyle states.
Most of the fellows have been assigned to low-performing schools; Mother Hale is in the Chancellor's District, which oversees "low-achieving" schools. The school has received additional resources over the past four years, and student performance has improved. Mother Hale now has 12 teaching fellows, five from the first class and seven from the second.
Mother Hale principal Margaret Hill explains that the fellows assigned to her school are enthusiastic and energetic. "It's going incredibly well," Hill tells Education World. "They come with varied experiences, they are not afraid of working hard, their expectations are very high, and they have fallen in love with the children. They have adopted the culture of the school very quickly, and they have embraced what we worked so hard to put in place here, which is to put children first."
Not all the fellows, though, adapted to teaching. Some left the program, in part because they expected to see results in a short time, says Headley, who now recruits people for the program in addition to teaching at Mother Hale. "A lot of fellows came in wanting to effect dramatic change, but this is a big institution," Headley continues, referring to the New York City school system. "I see fellows as subtle agents of change."
Other fellows who dropped out felt there was not enough support in the schools to which they were assigned, Headley says. "It was not about the children," he adds.
Headley says he read about the program in July 2000. "I was intrigued with the idea that I could jump into a program and six weeks later be in front of a class of children."
There have been some surprises in his new profession. One of the biggest has been seeing his students' need for respect from him and their peers, Headley explains. "The slightest insult can be devastating."
On the Monday afternoon Education World visits Headley's class, students work on a geography lesson. They read their texts, meet in small groups to discuss questions about the reading, and then write their answers. The 17 youngsters are chatty, and Headley frequently reminds them about the need to focus by asking them to stop what they are doing, raise a hand, and look at him.
Headley's own high expectations for his students motivate him, says Hill, the school principal. "Mr. Headley teaches like he's in a prep school," Hill explains. "That's wonderful for our children."
In another classroom at Mother Hale, teaching fellow Christina Young prepares material for her fifth-grade class. Young says the fast-track approach appealed to her. "I always had the intention of going into education, but I didn't know it would be this way," adds Young, who recently graduated from Cornell University with a degree in policy analysis.
"I don't think a year ago I ever would have anticipated being here. I didn't think the day would be so long -- I've never worked so hard in my life," Young says of her life as a teacher. "There is amazing support here, though, and I did not anticipate that [level of support]."
Young applied for the program after her mother told her about it. The real butterflies set in on the first day of school, she recalls. "I don't think I'd ever been so nervous as when I went to pick up the kids the first day. I'm lucky now that I'm learning as I'm teaching."
Classroom management has been the most-difficult part of the job so far, Young says. "Discipline is the hardest thing and learning how to make lessons engaging so discipline is maintained," she explains. "You try to recognize the challenges each kid faces and understand what each one deals with -- one-on-one discussions can help. Once they realize you care, they are more willing to help find a solution to the problem."
"For the first group, we did not have mentors in place right away," says Doyle, the project coordinator for the office of alternative certification. "Often they [the fellows] are in the most-troubled schools, and that is often where we have the most problems finding mentors. I think we are better prepared now at coordinating efforts."
Fellows also enter the program with more-realistic expectations of the job. "These are bright, articulate people who have a passion for education," Doyle notes. "But the reality doesn't always match the hype, both positive and negative. We have to give a fair representation of the schools."
One of the criticisms Doyle has heard of the fellows program is that most of the fellows are assigned to low-performing schools, and students there would benefit more from experienced teachers. City officials have had little success recruiting experienced teachers for those schools, she says.
Doyle agrees that the fellows program may not be the ideal solution to the teacher shortage, but it is the best remedy officials have right now. "We may not have the most experienced teachers in the neediest schools, but at least we know [the fellows] have an extensive pre-service program, they are enrolled in a master's program, and they receive daily mentoring," Doyle explains. "In many cases, the schools are happy to have the fellows."
Teaching in a Chancellor's District school has both advantages and disadvantages for a fellow, according to Headley. "The curriculum is very regimented, but on the other hand, you can fall right into it," he notes. Headley also has help in his class from a tutor and an AmeriCorps volunteer. Still, it can be challenging. "It can be difficult, but you can do it with support," Headley says of teaching in a school like Mother Hale. "Fellows can draw on their own experience and background."
Hill says she told some of the fellows she met in the summer that teaching in a Chancellor's District school could be challenging. "They said they were up to the challenge," she remarks, "and most of them have been."
Members of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing the city's 74,000 public school teachers and other education professionals, are grateful for the fellows' help. However, according to union spokesman Ron Davis, the program does not solve the long-term problem of recruiting and retaining experienced teachers.
"We welcome anything that will bring experienced, well-qualified educators into the city public school system," Davis tells Education World. "And I mean experience in terms of life lessons. But this does not address the real need, which is to make salaries more competitive. Until we do that, we won't attract the numbers or the really qualified educators."
New York City loses about 41 percent of its new teachers within their first five years on the job; many leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. City teachers earn between 20 to 30 percent less than teachers in the surrounding suburbs do, Davis continues.
The union's five-year contract expired in November 2000. The old contract remains in place until a new one is approved. Starting teachers with a bachelor's degree earn $31,910; those with a master's degree earn $36,045. A teacher with 20 years or more experience would max out at about $70,000.
The union recently faulted city hall and the board of education for launching an $8 million campaign to recruit teaching fellows while the city is still negotiating a contract with the teachers' union. Union members are not opposed to the fellows program or an advertising campaign, but they think settling a contract should take precedence, Davis says. "Unless they make teachers' salaries competitive, they won't have anything to sell," he adds.
The union does not necessarily view the fast-track program as a handicap for new teachers. "It's a work in progress," Davis states. "There will be some kinks. Of course, we would love to see more training, but we're in a crisis. We hope they will compensate with the experience they bring from their other careers."
Despite the long hours and adjustments, Headley says, he would suggest the program to others. "I would recommend the program if someone had thought about teaching but is daunted by all the bureaucracy. But you have to feel like you have something to bring to the classroom."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2006 Education World