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In Chicago, preparing teachers for the classrooms that need them most

August 30, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Teaching is extremely difficult in urban school districts. In Chicago, for example, the city is confronting one of the worst budget crises in years, and keeping good teachers is a persistent struggle. But an intensive training program nearby is using innovative techniques that anticipate the challenges teachers will face in such demanding, diverse classrooms. Education Week's Lisa Stark reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first: Urban school districts are tough places to be a teacher — but also where the best and the brightest are needed the most. In Chicago, which is dealing with one of the worst budget crises in years, recruiting and holding on to good teachers is an uphill battle.

The district also faces a common dilemma. Even as the student body is growing more diverse, the teaching profession is not.

One university teacher-training program is trying to step up to the challenge.

Lisa Stark of Education Week has the story.

LISA STARK: It’s summer in the city of Chicago, the nation’s third largest public school district. And these aspiring teachers are getting to know each other, the first step in an intensive summer fellowship to prepare them to teach in urban schools.

WOMAN: I want to be a teacher in Chicago Public Schools.

MORGAN BRAUER: Because I think I can make a really big difference.

MAN: And make sure other students who come from backgrounds like myself get these opportunities.

LISA STARK: These fellows, 21 of them, are all students at Illinois State University, training to be teachers. They have high hopes, but most, like Morgan Brauer, have little or no experience in the inner city.

We first met Morgan the day before, at her home about an hour away.

Tell me about this neighborhood, how you grew up?

MORGAN BRAUER, STEP-UP Fellow: So, I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, Rolling Meadows specifically.

LISA STARK: Morgan typifies America’s teaching force, mostly white, mostly female.

MORGAN BRAUER: I grew up, it’s everyone basically goes to college. There is not really like any question. Like, I was going to college. That was that.

And I think that’s kind of why I want to teach in Chicago Public Schools, is because they don’t have the same opportunities that I did growing up in the suburbs. So, it’s just going to be a new experience.

LISA STARK: This morning, Morgan is leaving for this unique teaching fellowship that takes her out of Rolling Meadows for a new home in Auburn Gresham, a predominantly African-American community on Chicago’s South Side, one of four neighborhoods fellows are placed in for one month, all with high-poverty schools, many with high crime rates as well.

It’s a nonstop four weeks, assisting in the classroom in the morning, volunteering in the afternoon. Classes and seminars fill evenings and weekends, all to help them appreciate and understand the culture of these communities.

ROBERT LEE, Illinois State University: And they hope that, when this is all finished, that you come back and become a teacher for their community.

LISA STARK: Robert Lee runs this fellowship, called STEP-UP.

ROBERT LEE: This infusion, this allowing candidates to experience firsthand and start to confront their — their own race, their own class, their own sources of privilege, leads to a much stronger teacher when they enter the field.

LISA STARK: Only 7 years old, with 144 participants so far, it’s a small program, but one that takes enormous effort, including finding funding, about $8,000 a fellow.

ROBERT LEE: That’s where the challenge is going to be.

LISA STARK: Virtually every teacher college requires so-called cultural competency training, but Professor Carol Lee says many programs come up short.

CAROL D. LEE, Northwestern University: The notion of cultural competence is often pitched as something special you need to know if you’re working with colored kids. And I’m saying, I don’t care where you’re teaching. The cultural competence means that I have to go into that community with the humility in order to learn.

LISA STARK: One of the key ways that STEP-UP fellows learn is from the host families.

Yolanda Smith will provide Morgan meals and a place to sleep, but, most importantly, lessons that can’t be taught in the classroom.

What do you hope Morgan leaves this neighborhood with?

YOLANDA SMITH, Host Mom: Just to learn about us, and don’t believe the hype.

LISA STARK: What is the hype, in your view?

YOLANDA SMITH: That we’re shiftless and violent. And I just want us — want her to see the human side of us, not what is portrayed on the media.

MORGAN’S MOM: We’re so thankful that you’re watching over her while she’s here.

YOLANDA SMITH: I sure do, me and God.

MORGAN’S MOM: Yes. Yes.

LISA STARK: Not all of the fellows are from the suburbs. Asia-Ana Williams grew up in Chicago.

ASIA-ANA WILLIAMS, STEP-UP Fellow: I’m, like, a little nervous. This is going to be my first time teaching, so I don’t know how I will do. And that’s, like, scary to think about.

LISA STARK: Asia-ana was recruited by Illinois State while in high school as part of an effort to encourage students of color to become teachers.

ASIA-ANA WILLIAMS: I want to come home to students who look just like me, who have been through things just like I have, and help them the way my teachers helped me.

LISA STARK: She too is in an unfamiliar neighborhood, the largely Hispanic community of Little Village. It didn’t take her long to feel at home.

TONY VELAZCO, Host Dad: This is really good, so try it.

ASIA-ANA WILLIAMS: My host family can’t get rid of me now. Like, I love them too much. Yes, they’re pretty much stuck with me.

LISA STARK: The Velazco family has taken in fellows since the STEP-UP program began seven years ago.

What do you tell these student teachers who come to your house?

TONY VELAZCO: Not to have the savior mentality. They’re not coming in here to save people. They’re here to be part of the community. And they really have to get to know where the kids are coming from in order to be able to teach them better, to reach them, to inspire them.

LISA STARK: Finding host families and local schools is done with the support of community groups, such as the one run by Carlos Nelson in Auburn Gresham.

CARLOS NELSON, Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation: The teachers in our schools have daunting tasks. And it’s way beyond just being able to teach kids math and reading.

But they’re also having to deal with social, emotional challenges, kids that haven’t had a full night’s sleep, that haven’t had a full meal. And that’s why we need to prepare educators to be more in tune with teaching the kids in our South Side community.

LISA STARK: The hope with a program like this one is that, if teachers are truly trained to teach in urban schools, not only will they take jobs here, but they will stay.

VANESSA PUENTES HERNANDEZ, Assistant Principal: Hey, guys, what’s up?

LISA STARK: Assistant Principal Vanessa Puentes Hernandez, who has worked in the district for a decade, has seen teachers come and go. Turnover in some Chicago schools is as high as 50 percent over four years.

VANESSA PUENTES HERNANDEZ: It takes a village. It really does. And so it’s important to learn about the community that you work in, because you want to be invested in that, not as an outsider coming in and maybe gaining some experience and leaving, but as someone who truly wants to create change.

YOLANDA SMITH: That’s a lot of work. That’s a sacrifice.

MORGAN BRAUER: It really is.

They care so much about their community. It’s kind of sad to see like how much effort they’re kind of putting in, and they still get seen in such negative lighting.

LISA STARK: Most of STEP-UP’s graduates end up in Chicago or other high-need schools. And over 80 percent are still in the classroom after five years.

ASIA-ANA WILLIAMS: We all came from so many different backgrounds, but I think that the common ground was always that we all wanted to be good teachers. These schools deserve good teachers, just like any other school district.

LISA STARK: And you want to be one of them?

ASIA-ANA WILLIAMS: And I want to be one of them. And I am going to be one of them.

LISA STARK: And with the help of this program, she’s likely to have some company.

Reporting from Chicago, I’m Lisa Stark of Education Week for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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