Fort Smith schools seek state waiver to support teacher intern program

by Tina Alvey Dale ( 394 views 

The Fort Smith Public School District is asking the Arkansas Department of Education for a classroom size and teaching load waiver in order to partner with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on a pilot teacher recruitment program.

The state board of education will consider the waiver when it meets Friday (March 15). Dr. Doug Brubaker, superintendent of schools, informed the FSPS Board of Education of the waiver request and the program at a called board meeting Monday (March 11).

The program would extend the UAFS teaching internship at Fort Smith schools to a full year from one semester. Teaching internships, commonly known as student teaching, are required for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education.

The pilot program would have FSPS hire two UAFS student interns who would teach a full year in a Fort Smith school under the supervision of a certified FSPS teacher who will mentor them. The teacher interns will be receive a one-year contract with the FSPS district, which will provide each intern with 50% of a first year teacher’s contract. Interns will be coded as a first year teacher, and FSPS will work with ATRS to ensure each intern receives a year of experience and a year toward retirement.

Martin Mahan, assistant superintendent of human resources and campus support, said the perfect scenario will have to be in place for the pilot to work. There will need to be an opening in a classroom at a school where there are at least two classrooms of that grade. He gave the school board the example of there being a teaching vacancies in a third-grade classroom. One intern would be hired for that classroom. The teacher who normally teaches another third-grade class at that same school would be pulled from the classroom, and the second intern would take on that class. The FSPS teacher pulled from the class would then supervise/mentor both teachers.

Dr. Monica Riley, interim executive director for the school of education at UAFS, said the teaching interns would also be coached by their supervisor at the university. Because the interns would spend two semesters teaching, they will miss a semester of classes at UAFS, but their graduation will not be delayed because of it. Credit hours will be imbedded in the internship, Mahan said. Students approved for the program must have met all their requirements and coursework will be imbedded in the first semester of the internship, Riley added.

The waiver is needed in order for the supervising teacher to be allowed to supervise both classrooms, Mahan explained. The school district is asking the waiver be granted for five years to see if the pilot program is successful.

Information provided to the state board of education by Riley and FSPS shows that “between 2009 and 2014, the most recent years of data available, teacher education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35% reduction. This amounts to a decrease of almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009. Between 19% and 30% of teachers leave the profession before their fifth year. As many as 16% public school teachers either move schools or leave the profession every year.”

This pilot internship program was created to address both teacher recruitment and retention, Brubaker said.

“We believe that creating a system that fosters longer internships with compensation will enhance interest in teacher education and equip new teachers to sustain their career,” he said, both to the board and the waiver application.

Lynn Peevehouse, a teacher at Ballman Elementary School, addressed the school board Monday night stating she was against the waiver because it could lead to class sizes being increased throughout the district.

“Although (it was stated in emails) that this is a waiver that would be narrowly applied to only this one instance, the fact is that waivers are not granted in this way. If the state board approves this waiver, this administration and any subsequent administrations could use this waiver to increase any non-special education class to any size they wish. Special Education classes would not fall under this waiver, as the State Board cannot waive federal law. There is also no way I know of for a current Superintendent to constrain a future Superintendent in the application of a granted waiver,” Peevehouse said in an email to Wade Gilkey, school board member, which she read at the meeting.

The pilot program will only include two students from UAFS a year, Mahan said. If the program is successful, they may look at adding to the program. FSPS had approximately 15 teaching interns in the fall semester and has 25-30 for the spring semester. Teaching interns come from several regional universities, according to Zena Featherston, FSPS executive director of communication and community partnerships.