Not just for poor schools anymore

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Teacher Jill Prout

photo by John Booz

Teacher Jill Prout

The district’s alternative certification initiative has changed dramatically over the last three years: Some programs that worked with CPS have ceased operating or been scrapped, and prospective teachers no longer receive tuition subsidies.

But perhaps the most significant shift has been in the district’s mission for the initiative, which CEO Arne Duncan has lauded for bringing experienced career-changers into the classroom. CPS’ original goal was to use the programs to bring teachers with expertise in high-needs subjects such as math, science, special education and foreign languages into the poorest, hardest-to-staff schools.

Now, the district is no longer steering graduates into those schools—and that means some of the city’s highest-performing schools, including Walter Payton and Jones College Prep, are snapping up graduates. (A majority of alternative certification teachers still wind up in low-performing schools, CPS data show.)

The shift illustrates CPS’ new philosophy: Get the most qualified teachers into the system, regardless of which school they end up in, to benefit the district as a whole. A similar philosophy is taking hold in other urban districts, says one expert.

“These teachers are really sharp,” says Jones College Prep Principal Donald Fraynd, who hired two science teachers from alternative certification programs last year. Other new graduates have landed at Andrew Jackson Language Elementary, Michele Clark Preparatory Magnet High, Kenwood Academy and Northside College Prep.

“We are putting teachers into the marketplace and giving our principals a greater selection from which to choose [their faculty],” says Nancy Slavin, director of teacher recruitment, who shares oversight for alternative certification and notes that “99 percent of these teachers go to high-needs schools.”

“But principals can select who they want,” she adds. “We don’t say ‘Walter Payton, no, you can’t have them.'”

Previously, new teachers who trained through alternative certification programs offered at partner colleges and universities promised to teach in the poorest schools for at least three years; in exchange, CPS paid a portion of their tuition.

A national shift

Like poorer schools, high-performing schools also need teachers in subjects such as math and science, Slavin notes. For example, Lane Tech High, which hired seven math teachers, took a hit when 1,800 teachers retired last year districtwide, she says.

“The school had four or five math vacancies,” says Slavin. “Should I say to Lane, ‘No, you can’t have anybody?’ “

Nationally, other districts also are beginning to shift in this direction, says Timothy Daly, head of the New Teacher Project in New York City. Districts initially required alternative-certification teachers to go into a subset of schools, mainly high-needs schools. But when principals from less-needy schools wanted to know why they couldn’t hire these teachers, districts didn’t have a good answer, he says.

Also, Daly says, teachers who are told they can only teach in certain schools resent it and are less likely to stay on the job.

“Basically, we tell teachers now, ‘We have prepared you. Now it is your job to find a job.’ We found that most still end up in the low-income schools,” he says.

Veenay Singla, senior associate at the Chicago Public Education Fund, which funds CPS’ alternative certification programs and focuses on putting quality teachers in underperforming schools, says she is comfortable with the district’s new stance.

“The culture has shifted so that alternative certification programs are now seen as being a viable route to bring quality teachers into the system, regardless of where they teach,” Singla says.

But Dominic Belmonte, head of the Golden Apple Foundation, a pioneer in alternative certification programs in Illinois, has mixed feelings.

“I am a believer in the market place, but our mission has always been to try to bring quality education to deserving children. Our teachers have always had to commit to work for five years in schools with the most need,” Belmonte says. “It is not our mission to be a farm for resource-rich schools.”

A new way to mentor

The district revamped alternative certification in 2005, splitting oversight between Slavin and Amanda Rivera, director of professional development. (See Catalyst, Sept. 2004.)

Under the reorganization, Slavin was put in charge of managing the programs and working with partner universities, and the number of training programs subsequently was cut to seven from 14. One of those programs is the Chicago Teaching Fellows, a revamped version of CPS’ First Class program. Chicago Teaching Fellows turned out 100 of the 350 new teachers last year.

Mentoring, too, has undergone changes. Previously, each new teacher was mentored by a colleague at the school assigned through the district’s GOLDEN program. Now, teachers can take advantage of the two full-time mentors now working system-wide to coach new teachers who ask for additional help or are referred by a principal or university. About 30 new teachers have asked for the help so far, so each mentor works with about 15 rookies.

The additional help is paid for with a $1.3 million Transition to Teaching federal grant designed to help prepare career changers to teach in high-needs districts.

As for the subsidized tuition, CPS is saving more than $250,000 a year since scrapping it. Instead, the district offers an interest-free loan for four years in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.

Sometime this month, results of a three-year study of alternative certification programs will be released. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Learning Points Associates, a nonprofit education organization that works on teacher quality issues, surveyed teachers to find out what they liked about their program, what they didn’t like, whether they thought they were prepared well and how prepared they actually were. The study also will look at test scores and whether alternative certification teachers have the same impact on student learning as teachers from traditional education programs.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.