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  • Lisa Jevens

Urban teaching programs attract career changers

Urban teaching has become a specialty in education, but it is also a calling. People from many different backgrounds, age ranges and career histories are drawn to it for different reasons.

For example, Blake Dunphy, of Community Links High School in Little Village, a former Realtor, came to the field after teaching English in China and loving it.

Rhea Patton, of Howe School of Excellence in North Austin, was drawn to teaching after working in the Department of Human Services in Texas. "I felt like there wouldn't be as many people coming through those doors if they were properly educated," she says.

With Chicago's massive, complex, and troubled public school system, it makes sense that the city has become a center for training urban public school teachers.

National Louis University is a hub for urban teacher education. It has partnered with several urban teacher training programs and also has its own programs. National Louis provides the coursework for the programs and grants the degrees.

One of Chicago's best known urban teacher education programs, which happens to be partnered with National Louis, is the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL. AUSL is known for its role in so-called "turnaround schools" in Chicago.

"I think the teacher is a huge factor in turning around schools," says Patton, an AUSL graduate. "You have to have effective teachers in every classroom. The training I received is what helps us be successful."

AUSL offers one year of hands-on classroom training where students work with a mentor teacher at an AUSL-affiliated public school.

Patton went through this program, and credits it with her success, first as a teacher, and now a leader.

"It gave me an experience I don't feel like I would have gotten anywhere else. By staying in the AUSL network, I had that culture of support. It has accelerated my career path and my growth."

Patton is now a mentor teacher, and just graduated her first class of 14 resident AUSL teachers.

"I feel like I have reached my goal and beyond," she says. "It has allowed me to impact even more students than I ever dreamed of. "

Because National Louis caters to working adults, it has its own teacher training programs that allow students to keep their jobs during the first part of their training, while observing in the classroom right away. Dunphy went through National Louis' USTEP (Urban Scholars Teacher Education Partnership) program. "The program puts you into a classroom at the beginning of the school year part time, and in the spring you are student teaching," Dunphy says. "There are some advantages to that. It gives you credibility with the students. They know to respect you, and you know their names."

Dunphy says he absolutely chose the right career path with urban teaching. "I feel satisfaction when I am expressing an idea and they understand it and can use it to create a new idea of their own," he says. "In some of these communities, their worldviews can be very small — just their surrounding neighborhood. Breaking through that little sphere of understanding is important."

The University of Chicago, known for extensive research on the Chicago Public Schools, also has an urban teaching program called UTEP (Urban Teacher Education Program).

A small, selective cohort is chosen for its two-year, full-time master's program.

"We are looking for someone who understands that education is an instrument for social change, someone who understands that teaching is intellectual work," says program director Kavita Kapadia Matsko. "They must demonstrate that they are reflective about themselves and have learned from their past. Ultimately, we are interested in those who can see students as cultural beings. It's not just about a GRE score."

Matsko says UTEP's teacher retention numbers are stellar, with 90 percent still teaching after 10 years in urban schools. After earning their degree, teachers receive three years of mentoring while working. Graduates of most urban teaching programs are not required to teach in a certain place for a certain period of time, but the expectation is they will work in the Chicago Public Schools.

There may be stipends available at some urban teaching programs. Teachers also may be eligible for loan forgiveness from the federal government.

Most urban teaching programs require a bachelor's degree, but not a teaching certificate to enroll. Directors say their graduates are sought-after, and the master's degree brings higher pay, according to Harry Ross, associate professor in the department of teacher preparation at National Louis.

"Teachers in Chicago can make decent money. You can raise a family on it if you've been teaching for a while. You can also become a coach, librarian, or a specialist to earn more."

The career outlook is bright, as well.

"Employment of teachers is expected to grow about 17 percent over the next 10 years," Ross says. "A lot of schools are starting international baccalaureate programs and adding more AP classes, and teachers are getting jobs in those. We are preparing them for this."

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Advanced Education section, on July 17, 2013.

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