Denver Public Schools is “way ahead of the curve” in teacher preparation due in part to the Student Teacher Residency, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

The residency program is offered through the University of Colorado Denver and the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Teacher preparation was the subject of a town hall Duncan held Tuesday afternoon. Duncan and other participants said that soon-to-be educators need as much time as possible in the classroom, and DPS is achieving that through the residency program.

The program, which launched a year ago, pairs each student at the university with a DPS mentor for a yearlong residency that allows the would-be teacher to work in the classroom full-time.

Duncan has focused on teacher preparation in recent months. In November, his department pitched new guidelines to improve programs for aspiring teachers by requiring states to report annually on the performance of programs – including alternative certification programs – based on a combination of retention rates, new teacher and employer surveys, and student data.

Keeping new and effective teachers in Denver classrooms has also become a concern for school officials here. A report in February found DPS has a high teacher turnover rate.

At the town hall, CU Denver student Linda Abeyta said that spending time in the classroom is an essential prerequisite for becoming a proficient teacher. Abeyta is finishing the Student Teacher Residency program at Denver’s McMeen Elementary School and said she has found time in the classroom beneficial to her future career.

“I feel that student teacher preparation programs need to have their teachers in the room with the kids as much as possible so they’re comfortable and confident and ready to get to know the whole child,” said Abeyta, who will begin teaching third grade at High Tech Elementary later this year.

Panelist Tania Hogan, who works at Greenlee Elementary School in DPS, said aspiring teachers can’t prepare themselves for all the issues students face outside of school by sitting in a university classroom. But they can become more familiar with these issues by being in a public school classroom.

“You start to realize….that many of your kids are suffering from PTSD, homelessness, poverty, abuse. Different things come into play that the new teacher might have not been as prepared (for),” Hogan said. “They become emotionally drained on top of everything else they have to do.”

Abeyta said she got to know her students outside of the classroom setting by making home visits to her students, accompanied by her mentor.

McMeen Elementary participates in the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, which encourages educators to visits student homes. Schools that participate in the project see an increase in student attendance and test scores, according to the project’s website.

“The dynamic of that relationship completely changes with that student,” Abeyta said. “You get to know the whole child – their interests, their fears, what’s going on with mom and dad. Getting to know that side of that student can really change the entire energy of the classroom. It can really help guide instruction…it builds an atmosphere of trust.”

Update: A previous version omitted the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s participation in the Student Teacher Residency.