Building Better Teachers

This Indianapolis charter school has a solution to its teacher shortage: ‘Grow’ its own educators.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Christel House charter network is starting a teacher training program.

When new teachers step through the doors of Christel House Academy, they are seldom prepared for the challenges of working in a school dedicated to educating students in poverty.

That’s why leaders at the Indianapolis charter network are trying a new approach: Training their own teachers.

Next year, Christel House is piloting a new teacher training program called IndyTeach. Student teachers will work in the classroom alongside experienced educators at Christel House, with additional teacher training each week. At the end of the year-long apprenticeship, which pays $30,000, students will earn teaching licenses from the state. The program will start with just four students, but it is expected to grow in later years.

In part, Christel House is launching the program to help create a steady stream of teachers for the network’s schools, said Tracy Westerman, who will lead IndyTeach.

“We need more. We need better teachers,” Westerman said. “This crazy idea stemmed from, how do we get more teachers? … Alright, let’s create them and grow them in house.”

The idea of giving new educators more practice in the classroom is gaining interest in Indianapolis and across the country. IndyTeach recently received a grant from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that supports school reform and charter schools, and it is modeled on a teacher training program at a California charter network.

The program will include a year in the classroom instead of the 16 weeks of student teaching that is typical for many education programs, said head of school Carey Dahncke. Students will work with mentor teachers, and as the program progresses, they will take on more teaching responsibility.

There is “much, much less emphasis on any kind of academic preparation, and a much greater emphasis on doing the work,” Dahncke said. “It is designed to be sort of just in time instruction.”

In the past, Christel House leaders have had a deep pool of applicants to choose from, Dahncke said. The teachers they hired were more experienced, and newly licensed teachers filled support roles where they had a chance to acclimate to the school before taking on their own classrooms.

But as the economy has improved, Christel House has had fewer applicants to choose from, Dahncke said. Now, many of the teachers they hire are not only brand new, but also unfamiliar with the school’s intensive approach to educating students in poverty.

The data offers a hint at the challenges facing teachers at Christel House: Nearly 90 percent of students are poor enough to get meal assistance and more than one in four children at the network’s two schools are learning English. Many parents didn’t complete high schools and hardly any continued on to college, said Dahncke.

Christel House teachers are focused on character education and instilling strong work habits, Dahncke said. Unlike in suburban schools, teachers don’t expect parents to track student progress, and they make home visits so they have a sense of the environments where students live. That approach is unusual, and many new teachers don’t get the right skills when they are studying education in college, he said.

“What tends to happen with traditional programs out there is they prepare teachers to teach sort of in any environment,” Dahncke said. “We are trying to prepare teachers for an urban environment.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Carey Dahncke said teachers typically have about 16 weeks of student teaching.

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.

Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.