Spradling Elementary home for interns in new UAFS program, first of its kind in Arkansas

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 868 views 

Teaching intern and University of Arkansas at Fort Smith student Merary Ramirez works with third graders at Spradling Elementary School in Fort Smith. (photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith)

Fort Smith Public Schools and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith are paving the way in Arkansas in teacher “real-life” education. FSPS received a waiver from the State Board of Education in March that would allow them to increase the teacher load and classroom size, for the specific purpose of a pilot teacher recruitment program.

The program extends 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 allowed FSPS to hire two UAFS student interns who will teach a full year at Spradling Elementary School under the supervision of a certified FSPS teacher who mentors them. The teacher interns received a one-year contract with the FSPS district, which provides each intern with 50% of a first year teacher’s contract plus all the training and new FSPS teachers routinely receive. Interns are coded as a first year teacher, and FSPS will work with the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System to ensure each intern receives a year of experience and a year toward retirement.

UAFS works with the students to make certain the program fulfills their course credit requirements so both students continue on track for graduation without missing a semester of classwork.

“On the UAFS end, we wrote a curricular for students at this level,” said Dr. Monica Riley, executive director of the UAFS School of Education. “Students in the teacher apprenticeship have to complete whatever coursework they have not completed. We worked it to imbed their coursework in what they are doing.”

The state requires students completing a bachelor’s degree in education to meet state requirements. The interns, who are referred to as student apprentices in the program, identify those competencies and implement them through the lesson plans and unit plans they write for their classes.

“They are tagging those and note this is where I met this competency that is required in college by teaching the students this lesson,” Riley said.

Riley is the one who first approached FSPS about the program, which is the first of its kind in the state.

The teacher apprentices — Kyle Bates and Merary Ramirez — are teaching 25 third-grade students. The two apprentices were chosen from those applicants by a committee, said Robyn Dawson, principal of Spradling and member of the program committee. They work with mentor teacher Courtney Burdick, who supervises their work and acts as a sort of teaching coach. In this role she provides, resource stools, advice, extension activities and more for the apprentices.

“I model teach. I co-teach with them, and then I observe lessons that they teach and provide reflections on how their lessons went. I provide support just other instructional strategies, management strategies, things they might require,” Burdick said. “I’m almost always involved even if they are teaching.”

It is Burdick’s role of overseeing 50 students on her roster that required FSPS to be granted the teacher workload and class size waiver from the state.

The Enhanced Intern Pilot Program sought for a collaboration between UAFS and FSPS. UAFS selected qualifying students, those who had passed all requirements for internship and passed all their licensing exams, and were either in Practicum 1 or Practicum 2. Students who qualified participated in a “mini interview,” Riley said.

“From that group, we allowed, those who qualified, to interview with the school district,” she said.

Bates and Ramirez said though school has only been going for a few weeks, the program is offering immeasurable lessons and experience.

“It’s a lot,” Ramirez said of the responsibility a teacher has her for students. “I don’t know how a regular first-year teacher who only had a (traditional) internship could do it. I don’t know how you can just jump from college to a classroom.”

She and Bates said the mentoring they receive from Burdick is key to their success as is the team of support they have at the school district. The pay also helps, Bates said.

“I can tell you I’m eating better than I would if I was just doing my regular internship. You can’t really have a job and do this, so I don’t know how it works for most people,” Bates said.

Traditional teaching internships are for one semester and are not paid. Interns work with a teacher in their classroom and are not as responsible for the class. In those internships, the classroom teacher also determines the intern’s grade. That is not the case in this pilot program. Though the apprentices will receive a grade, that grade will be determined by Riley, who is working with both closely and conducts classroom visits.

Bates and Ramirez will graduate in the spring 2020, a few weeks before their contract with FSPS is completed. Though their college career will have come to an end, both will continue to work with the district as teachers through the 2019-20 school year.

The programs goals are to better prepare interns for the teaching profession; create stronger educators earlier in their careers; promote retention of more teachers; and attract more students into the teaching profession through a collaborative, job-embedded program.

“Statistics show up to 30% of teachers leave the profession by their fifth year of teaching,” said Sherri Penix, FSPS assistant superintendent of human resources and campus support. “We hope this program will help with teacher retention.”

There is also hope students who go through the pilot program, and in subsequent years if the program continues, will want to stay with Fort Smith schools. Bates and Ramirez said they hope they have the opportunity to do so.

As for UAFS, they hope to continue and grow the program with continued collaboration with FSPS as well as the other schools they work with for internships with students in the education program, Riley said.

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