Stepping Up to Teach

Stepping Up to Teach

Columbus (Ohio) Public Schools

The recruitment problems facing Columbus (Ohio) Public Schools--namely a shortage of qualified math and science teachers and a lack of minority role models--are a nearly universal challenge. The Columbus solution? Tap into internal resources.

The district's Stepping Up program has allowed classified employees to earn a math or science teaching license with no out-of-pocket costs. In exchange, the employees commit to teaching in the district for four years.

For instance, there's Bernadette Steele, a middle school secretary with an associate degree in music. Steele plans to weave music into the math curriculum after she earns a math teaching certificate later this year.

"The other teachers really took me in and showed me the ropes." -Tim Myles, Stepping Up graduate

Stepping Up complements an active teacher recruitment program. The district's requirements--adequate content knowledge, a positive attitude, a firm belief in every student's ability to learn and solid classroom management strategies--are a tall order that No Child Left Behind has magnified.

"When we looked at the highly qualified teacher language in NCLB, we began to think differently," says Marvenia E. Bosley, deputy superintendent for academic achievement.

Administrators realized the district had a pool of college-educated classified employees who had the right attitude and understood the policies, procedures and context of the district and its students. From recent immigrants with limited career options to those forced to work outside of their fields for any reason, these employees represented a tremendous untapped resource.

The hitch? None were in a position to quit their current jobs as instructional aides, secretaries or bus drivers to return to school to earn a teaching license.

Back to School

Sending classified employees to college was well beyond the district's budget, so administrators sought grants from the National Science Foundation and Ohio Department of Education to fund a one-time alternative licensure program for classified employees.

The concept was a hit. Both grants came through for a total of $640,000. The district had just one month to recruit candidates to begin coursework in June 2002. Brochures and posters, as well as union leaders, helped spread the word about the program.

Scores of employees jumped at the opportunity. More than 100 turned up for an informational meeting, and 75 applied to the program. Forty-three employees were selected based on transcripts of previous college coursework, essays and recommendations. It's a group that reflects the diverse nature of Columbus' student body. About two-thirds of the participants are minorities, another one-third are non-native to the United States and several are bilingual.

Nearby Ohio Dominican University--the small liberal arts school that had collaborated with administrators during the grant-writing process--was a natural choice as a partner in developing the licensure programs. Stepping Up participants were divided into two cohorts based on the number of college years they had already completed.

Creating alternative licensure programs for integrated math and earth science/biology was a huge challenge. Only a few candidates had math or science degrees, and a fair share are non-Native English speakers. The district and ODU developed a program with both content and pedagogy training, plus language workshops for non-Native speakers.

Like many alternative programs, Stepping Up provided a crash course in education. Participants continued to work in their classified positions while completing assignments and field-based teaching experiences to earn their teaching licenses. Tim Myles, an instructional aide turned seventh-grade science teacher, admits, "It was not an easy year, but no one dropped out. It was where we wanted to be."

In fact, the program's intense nature may have fostered strong team spirit. Michael Grote, director of the district's NSF Urban Systemic Program, which oversees Stepping Up, says, "There is a real camaraderie. ... They know how to work together and help each other out."

The team philosophy particularly benefits non-native English speakers, who get a comfortable forum to practice English skills. A district Welcome Center and the ESL department provide additional support. These aspects of the program make it a natural fit for immigrants like Mohamed Sharif, a native of Somalia who earned an accounting degree there before coming to the U.S. Initially an instructional aide in the district, Sharif now teaches high school math.

Webs of Support

Succeeding as an aide and in college is one thing. Succeeding as a first-year teacher is another.

Columbus attempts to counter new teacher attrition with a peer assistance and review program for all new teachers. An experienced teacher/mentor visits the classroom for weekly observations and demonstrations.

Stepping Up graduates receive a double dose of support. They attend a local university for graduate courses on teaching methodology, technology, classroom management, assessment, curriculum and learning. The multi-purpose courses, which are required of all Ohio teachers, sharpen participants' teaching skills and allow them to maintain relationships built during the program. The grant covers costs, and the district gets reduced tuition because the classes are taught by Grote.

Stepping Up teachers are also creating new support networks on the job. Myles says, "The other teachers really took me in and showed me the ropes." They have shared suggestions regarding the details that can confound a first year teacher, such as routines, attendance and grading.

The real reward for new Stepping Up teachers, however, is their ability to impact students. "The best thing about this is working with kids and watching them grow academically," Myles says.

In addition to nurturing students' academic growth in science, Myles plays another key part in students' lives--as a role model. Mary Lee Peck, associate dean of ODU's School of Continuing Studies, explains, "This program allows minority students to see themselves reflected in the professional world."

Some non-native speakers have struggled with the exam required for teaching in Ohio, and the demanding pace of the program is stressful for participants. Peck views these as minor glitches and rates the program a success.

Yet, true success will be defined in the long run, as the teachers remain in the classroom. "The benefits of Stepping Up are greater than the price tag for the program," Bosley says. "This program is an investment in our children. It's an excellent model for them and that's priceless."

It would make sense, then, that the program continues. The district would like to secure additional funding to extend it. Meanwhile, inquiries from employees continue to pour in, says Grote. "The audience is there."

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Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.

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