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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Academy for Urban School Leadership: Seasoned Professionals Bring a Passion for Reform

The best teachers for the toughest schools.
By Carol Guensburg
Courtesy of Academy for Urban School Leadership

As in many urban districts, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) confronts a shortage of dedicated, top-notch teachers for its high-poverty sites. Staffing requires triage each fall.

One remedy is the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which prepares roughly fifty new teachers a year expressly for the rigors and rewards found in the city's most deprived schools. The program, loosely modeled after a medical residency, gives novices two months of courses followed by a full-year immersion in one of the AUSL's four teacher-training academies (three elementary schools and a high school, all in impoverished neighborhoods). There, the teachers absorb best practices from mentoring educators and work with students.

"It's like a guided apprenticeship," explains executive director Donald Feinstein. Residents earn a $32,000 stipend for their Monday-through-Thursday classroom assistance. On Fridays, they take courses in curriculum development, lesson planning, classroom management, cultural competence, and more. They graduate with a master's degree -- in teaching from National-Louis University or instructional leadership from the University of Illinois at Chicago -- and the obligation to work another five years in an underperforming CPS location.

Support for these recruits continues long past graduation. For two years, the AUSL provides graduates with field coaches who help them improve their practice.

This type of nurturing sets the AUSL apart from other teacher-training academies and "links teacher preparation to service in the most disadvantaged schools," says Martin J. Koldyke, a retired venture capitalist who founded the nonprofit organization in partnership with the CPS in 2001. The school district and AUSL share the program costs, raising money from corporations and other donors.

Among the three teacher-training programs in the country that recruit mid-career professionals and pay stipends, Chicago's pays the most. (The Boston Teacher Residency and Colorado's Boettcher Teachers Program are the other two.)

At the AUSL's teacher-training academies, where children are all at poverty level and almost entirely of color, the report card is promising: Students' reading, math, and science scores are steadily rising.

Although the AUSL does recruit some recent college graduates, most participants are seasoned professionals making a career change. They bring real-world experience in accounting and other businesses, nonprofit organizations, the military, and the legal profession. They also bring maturity: The average age among current residents is twenty-nine. Perhaps most importantly, they bring a passion for reform. "We have a pipeline of human capital wanting to teach in schools with a fresh start," Feinstein says.

Since its inception, the AUSL has produced 153 teachers. More than 90 percent of them still work in the Chicago schools, some in the two NCLB Turnaround Schools the AUSL also runs. One such graduate is Andre Cowling, who's completing the final year of his contract as the new principal at the Harvard School of Excellence, one of the Turnaround Schools.

Cowling, forty-three, left a $130,000-a-year supervisory job to fulfill his childhood dream of leading a school. "If I'm working eight to twelve hours a day, I want to be happy," Cowling says. "If I can make a difference in the life of a child, that's it."

Carol Guensburg is a freelance journalist and former founding director of the Journalism Fellowships in Child and Family Policy. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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