Alternative licensure programs help districts ‘think outside the box’

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Years of planning, hundreds of applicants and mass enthusiasm aside, Teach For America may not be able to open in the Twin Cities next year.

The project could be delayed if fundraising goals aren’t met by July. At the same time, school administrators are waiting for the opening as they look for all available options to close the achievement gap in area public schools.

Teach For America, which hires college graduates to teach in underperforming schools while earning their teaching degrees, is just one alternative licensure program in the United States.

These programs are extremely successful, school officials say, because they recruit graduates strong in core learning subjects like math or science that would usually go into other fields.

Locally, the achievement gap is visible in the number of schools that fell below federal requirements in 2008.

Only 17 of the 65 St. Paul public K-12 schools met national reading and math standards, according to another alternative licensure program, The New Teacher Project .

Minneapolis, like the rest of the country, also has a large achievement gap, especially when it comes to students of color, Stan Alleyne, Minneapolis Public School District spokesman, said.

“When you have a gap like this you need to think outside the box and you need to narrow it,” Alleyne said.

Alternative licensure

In growing numbers, alternative licensure programs are putting recent college graduates into schools that might not have taught otherwise.

In its 18th year, Teach For America has expanded its base from 500 recruits to 6,200 in 29 areas of the United States .

Teach For America is working to expand into two new Midwest areas — the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.

Funding permitting, Teach For America will be placing 40 alternative licensure teachers into Twin Cities charter and public schools.

The St. Paul Teaching Fellows , another nonprofit organization geared at eliminating the achievement gap, is already rooted in the community.

The local alternative licensure program is a wing of the national New Teacher Project, which, like Teach For America, focuses on the achievement gap in public education by focusing on improving teaching, Norah Barrett , St. Paul Teaching Fellows spokeswoman, said.

Barrett said the group hires graduates with strong backgrounds in math, science, special education and foreign language fluency for students in the area, regardless of whether they have a teaching degree.

“We’re just looking for the top-quality teachers; we don’t have a strong opinion where they come from,” Barrett said.

Teachers by day, students by night

One of the key similarities between Teach For America and the St. Paul Teaching Fellows is that their teachers are students.

By the end of their tenure within the programs, the new teachers will have received their master’s degrees in a hybrid teaching program from Hamline University in St. Paul.

Kathy Paden, the director of the master of arts and teaching program at Hamline, runs the program that gives these students the context courses a traditional student would receive.

“Essentially, it is completely a field-based program because they are in classrooms all of the time,” Paden said. That eliminates the need to student-teach before receiving their licenses, she said.

After a five- to six-week summer school teaching session, the two alternative licensure programs put the fresh teachers in classrooms.

But on nights and weekends, the teachers move from the podium to the desk, taking night classes toward their teaching degrees.

Paden said the program teaches lessons about student learning, cultural diversity and how to develop cooperative relationships, as well as specific courses for the teacher’s area of content.

At the end of the programs — two years for Teach For America, three for St. Paul Teaching Fellows — the student should be knowledgeable enough to pass their tests and get their teaching license.

Even though these new graduates aren’t licensed teachers, local schools are optimistic about their ability to teach.

Walt Stull, executive director for New Spirit School in St. Paul, said these programs are a way for new graduates to bring their talent and enthusiasm to local schools.

Stull said that alternative licensure programs work especially well in charter schools with “core knowledge” philosophies that stress math and sciences.

“This is a way for them to consider teaching,” he said, “and a large number of them stay in teaching afterward.”

Potential growth, potential blockades

Though these alternative licensure programs are growing nationwide, the pull for subject-strong graduates to enter other fields is increasing as well.

Alleyne, from the Minneapolis Public School District, said a teacher’s pay isn’t as enticing as other offers for new graduates.

“If you major in science and math you have a lot of options if you graduate,” he said.

But some students align with the goal of alternative licensure programs to reduce the achievement gap.

Kevin Donley, a psychology senior, said he is applying for Teach For America because public school systems need help.

“I want to get hands-on with it, learn about it, go to graduate school and learn the methodology,” he said.

Bethany Gildner , an officer in the Friends of Teach For America student group, said the program will have more applicants this year at the University of Minnesota than last, even though positions might not be open due to a potential funding shortage.

Donley, whose first choice is to teach in Philadelphia, said he hopes to teach someday whether he participates in an alternative licensure program.

“I feel like education is the most important thing in the world, to restructure society,” he said.

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