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First Reading: Alternative teacher mindset

Published (1/21/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Parasa Chanramy teaches at the BEST Academy through the Teach for America program. Legislation is proposed to make it easier for people like her to become licensed. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)The kindergarteners at the BEST Academy, a North Minneapolis charter school, are mostly Somali-American and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Their teacher, Parasa Chanramy, is a recent college graduate from Oregon who didn’t major in education.

Chanramy isn’t just any starry-eyed do-gooder who likes kids. She’s one of the 12 percent of 46,000 applicants selected last year by Teach for America to tackle the achievement gap, one class at a time.

An international affairs major at Lewis & Clark College, Chanramy volunteered at a Portland public school and studied education policy at Princeton University on a summer fellowship. She completed 30 hours of “pre-work” required by TFA, including classroom observation, reading and instructional videos, then spent six weeks student teaching and learning pedagogy and practice at a school on Chicago’s south side.

She relies on feedback from her academy colleagues and her TFA program advisor to continually improve her teaching. Chanramy is pleased with her students’ progress after half a year. She administers weekly quizzes and seven cumulative exams a year. Somali-speaking staff interpret during parent teacher conferences and translate her newsletter and progress reports. She sees about 60 percent of parents more than once a month.

“Are they learning what they need to learn to be a strong kindergarten scholar?” she wants to know. They are mastering basic alphabet sounds, how to blend those in words. “Some are even starting to read now. Seeing that is really fulfilling and rewarding as a teacher.”

Two bills that would make it easier for teachers like Chanramy to become licensed await action by the House Education Finance Committee after the House Education Reform Committee approved them Jan 18.

Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) sponsors HF3, while House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) sponsors HF63. Both would require 200 hours of training and ongoing professional development and supervision. Candidates would be granted a two-year limited-term license as a step toward full licensure, and would be the teacher of record in the classroom.

Last year, contentious debate over alternative licensure pathways drove the education bill into the ground. Garofalo predicts a much brighter future now.

“All the data shows the reforms we are proposing are the right thing for Minnesota,” he said. “I’m very confident, very optimistic that one of the big shining successes of the session will be education reform bills signed by Gov. Dayton.”

A companion to Garofalo’s bill, SF4, sponsored by Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista), awaits action by the Senate Education Committee. Mariani’s bill has no Senate companion.

Stabilizing programs

HF3 would require all teacher preparation programs, including alternative pathways, to include a rigorous assessment of first-year teachers featuring student performance measures, self-reflection and supervisor input. The measure would meet the growing demand for data-driven evaluations, said Mariani, and would take the teeth out of the argument made frequently by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union, that nontraditional programs can’t ensure quality teaching.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said.

Only 3.3 percent of the state’s 56,000 teachers don’t have a standard license, but have some variation of a provisional one. Of those, 90 are Teach for America members, placed in 27 districts: Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center public schools, plus 25 charter schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, left, sponsor of an alternative pathway to teacher licensure proposal, and Kelly Wolfe, right, who represents Teach for America, listen as Shannon Blankenship answers a question by a member of the House Education Reform Committee during a hearing Jan. 18. Blankenship is the founder of Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a Minneapolis charter school. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid) “That demand has grown significantly since we started, mostly by word of mouth,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of Teach for America Twin Cities.

Other “experimental approval” programs could benefit, said Board of Teaching Executive Director Karen Balmer, such as a Mandarin Chinese program based at St. Cloud State University and a residency model akin to a medical residency that’s being developed. She said the existing waiver process is cumbersome for such programs.

Tackling the achievement gap…

Neither Garofalo or Mariani claim that alternative licensure paths are the panacea for what ails public schools, but agree they’re one tool to tackle the achievement gap.

According to the Department of Education, while the overall high school graduation rate is 75 percent, it’s 82 percent for white students, 68 percent for Asians, 45 percent for Hispanics, 44 percent for blacks and 41 percent for American Indian students.

“Decreased wages, fewer jobs and a lower quality of life are the consequences of not solving the achievement gap,” Garofalo said. “In the long term we have an economic motivation to create jobs. It is also a moral imperative that every child deserves a quality teacher.”

Some recent studies in other states indicate TFA teachers as equally or more effective than their traditionally trained counterparts, but Mariani said that shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. He does not intend to vilify teachers, but hopes to jumpstart a new mindset within an old system.

“How is it that we’ve got a great school system that really produces bad outcomes with certain kids at a rate that is statistically significant?” Mariani said. “What you want to do is attract adults that have a fire, a focus, a passion and a fundamental, deep, unshakable belief in the capacity of these young students, who primarily are going to be low-income kids of color.”

Shannon Blankenship, a former TFA teacher and founder of Hiawatha Leadership Academy said they only hire people who have that kind of attitude, those who believe poor students can learn as well as other students and who are willing to invest in longer hours and new strategies. His staff of 30 includes 19 current or former TFA members.

“I have also attracted traditionally trained teachers who have heard about TFA practices and say, ‘Hey, I want to be around that mindset,’” he said.

The non-union school uses the Minneapolis district salary scale as a benchmark, plus a performance pay incentive between 10 percent and 20 percent of base salaries, based on teacher evaluations including student test scores and “overall professionalism.”

Hiawatha’s 400 K-4 students are 95 percent free- or reduced-price lunch eligible, 98 percent students of color and 75 percent have limited English proficiency. The most recent Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results indicate that 70 percent of Hiawatha students are proficient or advanced in math, as are 68 percent in reading, compared with an range between 10 percent and 30 percent in neighborhood schools with the same percentage of students in poverty.

Those results come from a combination of good hiring, parent involvement and longer hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Hiawatha staff also meets in families’ homes to discuss the school’s “commitment to excellence.”

“It’s a promise we will do whatever it takes to get your child to college,” Blankenship said.

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