Chicago opens doors to career-changers

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Over the last 15 years, shortcuts to teacher certification, once vilified by critics as a back door for substandard teachers, have slowly but steadily gained acceptance among state legislatures and school districts. Even teachers unions and universities, both bastions of traditional teacher training, have begun to inch their way onto the bandwagon. Illinois has begun to go with this flow, but just barely.

Until 1997, the only way to start an alternative-certification program in Illinois was to win approval from the state’s Teacher Certification Board, composed largely of union and university representatives. As a result, the state’s handful of alternative programs are small scale. For example, DePaul University’s nine-year-old partnership with the Glenview school district trains no more than 18 interns a year.

“The colleges have been put in a difficult position,” observes Rob Sampson, division administrator of professional preparation for the Illinois State Board of Education. “A four-year curriculum brings in a lot of money for a school, and so they are reluctant to get away from that.”

In 1996, the Golden Apple Foundation sought approval from the certification board for a program to bring industry professionals with math and science expertise into Chicago classrooms without requiring them to take the prescribed teacher education courses. “They laughed us out,” recalls Dom Belmonte, director of teacher preparation programs for Golden Apple. “Having been rebuffed, we sought a response from the legislature.”

A year later, they got it. In 1997, the General Assembly passed a law authorizing non-profit organizations to partner with colleges and universities to establish alternative routes to teacher certification. Separate provisions allow colleges and universities to establish their own such programs for teachers and for administrators, excluding principals and assistant principals.

Initially, alternative certificates obtained through partnerships between non-profits and universities were valid only in Chicago. “The larger of the teachers unions expressed the opinion that it would not work actively against us if the certification were only for Chicago,” says Belmonte. (The Illinois Education Association is Illinois’ largest teachers union.) Golden Apple’s response: “Let us begin in this manner and change it later.”

With help from state Sen. Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst), they won a change this summer. Now, partnership graduates are restricted to Chicago’s public schools only during their first four years. Then, when they renew their certificates, they may teach anywhere in the state.

“In this manner we get four years of them in Chicago,” notes Belmonte. “I originally wanted them to be certified statewide right away, but it would allow these adults to be prepared in Chicago and then skeddadle to the suburbs.”

Under the law, there are three steps to an alternative certificate.

First, qualified candidates must complete an initial phase of study and practice teaching. If they pass muster, they receive a one-year, non-renewable, provisional certificate, which allows them to teach.

Second, candidates fulfill a one-year internship, working full time as a teacher or administrator under the guidance of a mentor.

Finally, candidates are assessed by school, university and any other partners before receiving a certificate.

In contrast, obtaining a regular elementary or high school certificate requires 16 credit hours in specified education courses and at least eight weeks of student teaching, among other things. Obtaining one through a typical master’s program usually takes at least two years.

And for students working full time, it can take even longer. “I was discouraged by the number of years it was going to take,” notes Caterina Plummer, who passed up conventional master’s degree programs twice on the road to becoming a teacher. (See story.)

Admission to an alternative teacher certification program requires:

A bachelor’s degree.

Passing the basic skills and subject matter tests required of all teacher candidates.

At least five years of employment in a field related to the area of study.

To enroll in an alternative program for administrative certification, applicants must have a master’s degree in management or a bachelor’s degree and equivalent life experience, as well as at least five years of employment in a managerial position. They also must pass the basic skills and administration tests.

So far, only Northwestern University has acted on the new state authority. It is Golden Apple’s partner in the Golden Apple Teacher Education program, called GATE for short. Martin “Mike” Koldyke is the founder of the Golden Apple Foundation and a board member of Northwestern.

Now in its second year, GATE has 25 interns and seven graduates teaching in CPS. The program is looking to expand; the University of Illinois at Chicago is the hottest prospect. “We are in conversation with them,” says Belmonte. “I have expressed an interest in expanding GATE into other high-need areas—special education and bilingual education.”

UIC is a nationally recognized leader in bilingual education. Also, as part of a major grant-supported overhaul of its teacher preparation programs, the university has promised to start an alternate route for math and science teachers.

Over the last seven years, the Chicago Public Schools have had an alternative route to regular teacher certification. Called Teachers for Chicago, participants take an introductory teaching course over the summer and then go right into the classroom, working under the tutelage of a mentor teacher. Unlike GATE participants, they take regular college education courses “after school.” In two years, they earn a master’s degree in education and a certificate that allows them to teach anywhere in the state.

The program is a partnership among CPS, nine local universities, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Golden Apple Foundation.

“The real catalyst for the program was John Kotsakis from the Chicago Teachers Union,” says Fred Chesek, program manager of Teachers for Chicago. Kotsakis, who died in 1994, “brought all these disparate forces together and said, ‘There are shortages all over the system. What can we do to address them?'” Chesek relates.

“This is an alternative route to certification, not an alternative certificate itself,” Chesek stresses. “Every one of our people does everything any other teacher does.”

From 1992 to 1997, Teachers for Chicago brought 621 teachers into the Chicago Public Schools. Nearly 90 percent of them stayed in the system after completing their two-year internship.

“We believe the commitment they make is much stronger than the commitment that a young person might make,” says Chesek. The average age of TFC interns is 35.

Chesek also credits the commitment of participating schools and mentor teachers with a large share of TFC’s success. In order to receive interns, a school must submit an application approved by the principal, local school council chair, union delegate and Professional Personnel Advisory Committee chair. These four key players also must approve teachers chosen to mentor the interns. Each mentor is assigned four interns and is released from classroom responsibilities for the two years it takes the interns to complete the program.

CPS pays for Teachers for Chicago but keeps costs down by hiring interns at $21,000 plus benefits. If the system hired certified teachers for those classrooms, it would have to pay at least $34,824, which is the starting salary in the union contract.

The savings give interns a big perk: free tuition at the participating colleges and universities: Chicago State, Columbia, Concordia, DePaul, Loyola, Northeastern Illinois, Roosevelt, Dominican and St. Xavier.

Joyce Lieberman, a visiting professor in UIC’s College of Education, has been observing both GATE and TFC interns as the university begins to prepare its own alternative certification programs. Although Lieberman herself graduated from UIC’s traditional teacher preparation program, she’s open to alternative certification. She also acknowledges it’s a tough sell to some of her colleagues.

“I’ll tell you frankly, the problems I observed them having were exactly the same problems first- year teachers from traditional teacher preparation have,” she says. “That’s probably blasphemy.”