Teacher Preparation

This may be the best way to train teachers, but can we afford it?

Despite great promise, Seattle Teacher Residency, known for its top-notch graduates, struggles to stay afloat

Adams Elementary School resource room teacher Zoe Leverson, and STR graduate student Maria-Elena Velásquez, check in with a fifth-grader following the lesson.

BALLARD, Wash. — Maria-Elena Velásquez, a teacher-in-training, needed help, stat. Her fifth-grade student had jumped from his chair and was climbing onto his desk. “Sit down in your chair right now, please,” said head teacher Margaret Paulk, supervising from the back of the classroom. Her tone had the don’t-mess-with-me authority of a 25-year teaching veteran, and, even while chatting with a visiting reporter, Paulk’s gaze never left her students.

Velásquez looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, it was my fault. I just asked him to get a pencil,” she said quietly to Paulk, unnerved by how quickly a peaceful literary lesson had unraveled into papers-flying, table-rocking chaos as she and her Seattle Teacher Residency (STR) colleagues attempted to teach 17 elementary school students, five of whom get special education support.

The day’s assignment, called Studio Day, is a four-times-a-year hands-on workshop, a sort of A-to-Z instructional think tank for lesson prep and teaching, with a heavy emphasis on group troubleshooting and feedback. Velásquez and her fellow grad students had spent the morning preparing the lesson; after lunch, their classmate Alicia Nicas taught it to the fifth-graders while the group observed and stepped in for one-on-one work with several students. At day’s end, the student teachers and their University of Washington professors would gather to deconstruct the day’s work.

STR stands out from many teacher training programs because its graduates enter the workforce with a dual teaching degree: general education or special education, plus a desirable extra certification that will better-prepare them to teach children with special needs or children who are not fluent in English. This is unusual among teacher training programs and vital for the jobs STR graduates will eventually fill in Seattle’s public schools. “Residencies build pipelines of teachers in response to very specific district needs,” said Anissa Listak, executive director of the National Center for Teacher Residencies, via email. “These are teachers that are unlike any other being produced by local providers.” (STR is one of 658 alternative teacher prep programs nationwide according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Education report.)

Related: What happens when teachers spend more time in a classroom — before teaching?

Teachers in training prepare a lesson for Studio Day, part of Seattle Teacher Residency’s intensive 14-month-long program.

Many teacher preparation programs have been criticized for failing to provide enough high-quality classroom experience for teachers-in-training, but Velásquez and her 30 classmates will spend four days per week, for the duration of their 14 months in graduate school, learning and teaching alongside seasoned, carefully vetted and paid mentor teachers in Seattle Public Schools.

While many first-year teachers report feeling under-prepared and ineffective, Velásquez is part of a cohort of 76 STR graduates and residents with a reputation for high-level performance right out of the blocks. To keep teachers at their jobs longer, STR asks that each of its graduates make a five-year commitment to a high-poverty Seattle school; with their dual degrees, Velásquez and her classmates will make a dent in Washington’s severe teacher shortage. As a woman of color, she will help fulfill the residency’s mandate to recruit and supply a racially diverse pool of new teachers.

And yet, STR teeters on the brink of survival.

STR is financially unstable, is too expensive to operate and is not producing enough teachers, argues the Seattle School Board, a key partner in the residency. The board’s loss of faith highlights the fundamental crisis undermining the program: Successful residencies require multiple players harmoniously working together — school districts, university or college teaching programs and fundraising entities. Without a healthy working relationship between the partners that created STR, Maria-Elena Velásquez and her classmates may be among its last graduates.

Toward the end of Studio Day, visibly exhausted, Velásquez and her classmates gathered around a library table at Adams Elementary School, snacking on popcorn and tangerines. Paulk, the fifth-grade teacher, joined them for the post-lesson brain dump. “I’m so jealous of your program,” said Paulk to the group. “When I was studying to be a teacher, my student teaching lasted just one week.”

Related: The first year of teaching can feel like a fraternity hazing

Alicia Nicas (right), a Seattle Teacher Residency graduate student, prepares a lesson with the help of a University of Washington literacy instructor.

The Studio Day lesson — weaving similes and metaphors into love poems — was overseen by a University of Washington literacy instructor and a special education instructor. This co-teaching model is unique to Studio Day and helped the grad students pay special attention to various learning differences among the fifth-graders. Having a special education professor in the room also allowed the teachers-in-training to grapple with a few of the challenges they will encounter at their future jobs.

“I noticed a few of the kids had inflatable bumpy cushions to sit on and fidget toys,” said Velásquez’s classmate James Dixon, who is currently employed as a paraprofessional in a Seattle public school while earning his teaching degree through STR. “How will I go about getting those types of supports when I’m working in a Title 1 school? Where do I get money for that?”

Seattle’s residency program originated in 2011 when Seattle Public Schools, the Alliance for Education (which raises money for the school district) and the University of Washington’s College of Education agreed to join forces to address Washington state’s teacher needs.

“The beginnings were very organic,” said Sara Morris, president and CEO of the Alliance for Education. “It was a kismet moment and we were interested in what was happening with the residency model in Boston. As close colleagues, we sat down and said, ‘We should do this here.’ ” These three partners were soon joined by the teachers’ union, the Seattle Education Association. “There were very few challenges at the beginning,” said Morris. “And having the teachers’ union as a partner eliminated so many potential roadblocks.”

But in short order, a whirlwind of leadership turnover — four superintendents in four years — led the partnership to a very public impasse that pitted the school district against its fundraising partner, the alliance. “We can no longer allocate our limited amount of leadership resources to initiatives with low system-wide impact or high costs,” wrote district Superintendent Larry Nyland in a letter to the alliance in October 2015. “We need funds for high-leverage initiatives with broad student impact.”

As Alicia Nicas (second from left) prepares the board for her lesson, her University of Washington instructors help keep classroom work flowing.

Nyland and the school board, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article, noted that the alliance failed to support the district’s funding priorities, had not sustained adequate funding levels and had become a “critical friend” to the district — frequently challenging its decisions and authority — rather than an ally.

“There was no issue with the quality or scope of the residency itself,” said Morris, the alliance president. “I think if you strip away the emotion, the district was saying: ‘We just want you to be a traditional school foundation. We want to hand you a list of 50 things we need money for, you raise the money and give it to us and that’s the end of the conversation.’ But that’s not how we operate. We are recognized as an accountable entity that has oversight; there is no funder who will just write a check and say, ‘use it as you like.’ ”

The souring of the partnership reached its apex in November 2015 when the school board voted to end its relationship with the alliance, or, at a minimum, restructure it significantly. Along with this public dressing down, the school district cut its annual financial contribution to STR from $230,000 in 2015-16 to a projected $50,000 for 2016-17, according to STR spokesperson Jami Sheets. The residency program’s costs are expected to exceed $1.5 million in 2015-16, with the expenses divvied up between the district, private donors and federal funds.

“This has been a very intense and public unraveling of what we had hoped would be a strong partnership,” said Listak, of the National Center for Teacher Residencies, which supports 22 residencies nationwide with technical assistance and networking. “Whatever this political in-fighting is all about, it’s become an adult issue and is not at all about kids and education.” These relationship woes are not entirely uncommon among residencies, she noted, although they occur more frequently between a university and a school district.

“We want to empower school districts to be more active players in teacher prep,” said Listak. “The flip side to that model is that when you have major turnover within a district, it will create challenges in the partnership. You are prone to the priorities of leadership when you are in service to a district.”

Related: The exhausting life of a first-year teacher

Alicia Nicas, a Seattle Teacher Residency student working toward a teaching degree in special education, delivers a lesson to a classroom of fifth graders.

Studio Day at Adams Elementary was wrapping up. Alicia Nicas, the a 37-year-old STR grad student on a special education track who had volunteered to be the day’s demo teacher, decompressed at the library table with her classmates. Nicas looked visibly relieved to have survived the day’s exercise. She’d conquered her pre-performance jitters and delivered a strong lesson to the crowded classroom filled with Paulk’s fifth-graders, plus 11 fellow students and the University of Washington instructors observing her work.

Nicas, a single mom of two daughters, picked STR for many reasons but among the most important: the $16,500 student stipend, paid out monthly over the course of the program. “That was huge. I looked at other programs but I couldn’t afford any of them without financial support,” she said. This despite the fact that, “because I’m on a special education track, there’s a much bigger loan forgiveness.”

Still, Nicas and her classmates must pony up $27,560 tuition for the University of Washington’s five-quarter program. Even with a monthly stipend, this creates a huge challenge for STR as it tries to recruit racially and socio-economically diverse future teachers. Although STR offered a full tuition refund in its first year, it can no longer afford to do so. “If you have high tuition, you’re going to have a hard time recruiting diverse applicants,” said Listak. “Diversity is literally linked to that value package.”

Tuition does not cover all the program’s costs. This year, according to the alliance, it will cost an additional $50,000 (a slight increase over the prior two years) to prepare each teacher via the Seattle residency. Listak maintains this is not more expensive than traditional teacher prep programs and its costs are offset by district savings due to having less teacher attrition.

Not everyone agrees with her big-picture analysis. Sandi Jacobs, senior vice president for state and district policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, feels that it’s time to circle back to traditional teacher prep programs.

“Given the cost of residencies, we think much more attention needs to be paid to how to improve the student teaching component in traditional teacher preparation programs,” said Jacobs. “Districts and [university] programs can work together to make the student teacher experience similarly intensive.”

Right now, the alliance and Seattle Public Schools are licking their wounds and expectations are dialed way back. The hoped-for benchmark of training 60 teachers each year beginning in 2018 has been halved. The original financial model, in which the school district would shoulder 51 percent of the program’s annual cost by 2018, has been scaled back to a tentative one-third model in which STR’s costs will be shared equally among the district, federal or state funds and private donors.

Meanwhile, the alliance has found a new dance partner. In 2017, backed by a $90,000 grant from Boeing Co., STR will begin training high school science, technology, engineering and math teachers for jobs in four neighboring South King County school districts.

“[The South King County school districts] have seen the value and understand it, even with just a minimal amount of exposure to the program,” said Marisa Bier, STR’s program director. “I think there’s a possibility the [Seattle Public School] district will decide not to continue supporting the residency. But the residency is seen as a national model, and if the district decides it doesn’t want to be part of this, there are other districts that do.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Teacher Preparation.

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