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How a Boston program is transforming the way we train teachers

October 3, 2015 at 1:38 PM EDT
The Boston Teacher Residency, an AmeriCorps service program that recruits future teachers and places them in schools for practical experience is being heralded as a model for training teachers. And other cities have begun to take notice. NewsHour's Christopher Booker reports.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: This is second week on the job for 22-year-old Renee Alves.

She’s assigned to this third grade class at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, in the Roxbury section of Boston – but she is not a teacher yet. She is part of a training program called the Boston Teacher Residency.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: As one of 40 residents in the teacher training program this year, Renee will spend 10 months watching, emulating, and learning as much as she can from experienced teacher Kayla Morse

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RENEE ALVES: You can learn from a textbook, but I think it’s a lot different when you’re in a classroom and you’re seeing it in person.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Renee’s lengthy training period is part of a transformation in the way Boston and handful of other cities prepare their teachers. While some teacher training programs require only a few weeks in the classroom, these residency models require far more.

In 2003, Jesse Solomon, who taught math in Boston public schools for ten years – co-founded the program that he likens to a medical residency.

JESSE SOLOMON: One thing I saw a lot when I was teaching was– a number of brand new teachers coming into the profession. Smart, committed, hard-working, kind of willing to do whatever it takes– but not really knowing how to teach that first year.

My concern was always that they were learning on the backs on the kids that had them that year, right? So if you’re a first-year teacher in Algebra 1 class, you get another shot next year. For those kids taking Algebra 1, that was their shot at algebra 1. So had in my head that there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Solomon’s goals were to counteract Boston’s heavy teacher turnover rate, fill key shortages of math and science specialists, and increase the number of minority teachers.

JESSE SOLOMON: Our country right now invests in the preparation of doctors to the tune of about half a million dollars per doctor. So we’ve obviously decided that to invest in the training of those doctors. So I’m not arguing we should spend half a million dollars per teacher.

But if education is really as important as everybody says it is, and if teachers are really as important as everyone says they are, then we should be thinking about how we as a country invest in the recruitment, preparation support of teachers.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Renee spends Monday through Thursdays as Kayla’s apprentice, and Fridays in graduate courses.

She and her fellow trainees will finish the residency with a master’s degree in education and become part of the growing roster of clinically-trained teachers in the Boston public school system.
Three out of four of these graduates from the past twelve years are still teaching in Boston – a city where one out of two have left the profession.

Kayla Morse finished the program four years ago.

KAYLA MORSE: I’ve been teaching at this school for going on two years. And what’s kept me here is how this school is set up. It’s a community of learners. So I feel very connected to the vision of not only preparing students for the world but also preparing more teachers.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: When you’re thinking about how you’ll work with Renee–are you mirroring a lot of your own experiences as a resident?”

KAYLA MORSE: So a lot of times I do mirror my experiences with her, but I also think about if I was new to this profession or this place, what are some of the things that I would need to know to work better.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Do you feel a responsibility to kind of keep her fire burning?

KAYLA MORSE: Yes, yes, because I think this work is challenging, and it can really get to you, but I feel like what keeps me going is that fire, and some of the same things we talk about with our kids, independence, perseverance, problem-solving, those are things that I kind of I carry through in my working relationship with her.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Roxbury has come a long way in the last two decades. These homes have replaced empty lots where city businesses used to dump their trash in the middle of the night, but residents still struggle with high unemployment– almost half of the children in the area live in poverty, and the program recognizes this.

Alongside comprehensive teacher education, the residents work with local community groups. Not only learning some of the history of the Boston public school system, but about the particular nuances of the neighborhoods in which they teach.

Here at the Dudley Street School this approach has led to a strategic partnership with the Dudley street neighborhood initiative – one of Roxbury’s oldest and most influential community organizations.

Program director Sheena Collier says even with 13 schools in Roxbury, more than two-thirds are bused to schools outside of the district.

SHEENA COLLIER: We believe in parents choosing to send their child to school wherever they like, but we’d like them to have the option to send them to a quality school in their neighborhood if that’s what the choose.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: She says the Dudley School is an integral part of keeping kids close to home.

SHEENA COLLIER: Unlike the other schools in our neighborhood, we were able to be a part of the visioning of what this school would look like, what would it mean for our community, what would it mean for the students that attend.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In addition to the forward momentum, teachers like Sabine Ferdinand, a graduate of the residency program, say it is important to recognize the challenging home environment some of their students may come from.

SABINE FERDINAND: I have to be really mindful of everything that my students come into the classroom with. You know, students who come from a difficult home life.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: How familiar were you with Roxbury beforehand?

SABINE FERDINAND: Not too familiar, surprisingly. I grew up maybe 25, 30 minutes away from here but before, you know, starting to teach here, the residency– took us throughout the neighborhoods and really taught us about where we’re going to be working. And so that really allowed me to understand Roxbury.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Twelve years in, this program has shown success not only retaining more teachers but hiring more science and math specialists, and placing more Black, Latino, and Asian-Americans in the classroom.

It hasn’t all gone according to plan. A 2011 Harvard study found that standardized math test scores were lower among students taught by 1st year residents than the 1st year teachers coming from traditional programs. This trend continues until the 4th year of teaching when scores in resident classrooms surpass their counterparts.

JESSE SOLOMON: It was a pivot point. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there haven’t been lots of pivot points. You know, it’s sorta like you– you go institute a bunch of things, you get some success. But all that really does is teach you about the next challenge that you need to take on.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In response to the study, the program retooled concentrating a greater number of residents in fewer schools.

JESSE SOLOMON: So if you have, you know, seven math residents and seven math mentors and a math clinic teacher educator, you have 15 people all in the same school talking together on a daily basis about what, like, does good math teaching look like– for– for the kids in this school. But I think the big question that we’re wrestling with now is ultimately are our teacher good for the kids they serve in the years down the line.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Only a few weeks in, Renee has a long year in front of her, but says she is undeterred – driven by her time with the students.

RENEE ALVES: When you have those aha moments, or you see a child have that aha moment, and their face lights up, it makes everything worth it.