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Home(room) Grown: An Urban District Taps Teenagers as Prospective Educators

An innovative teacher-prep program starts in high school.
Sara Bernard
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Credit: Getty Images

When the administrators of south Florida's Broward County School District scrambled to address the district's acute teacher shortage, they didn't have to look far: The answer was already sitting in their classrooms.

The Urban Teacher Academy Program (UTAP) recruits Broward County teens interested in becoming educators and guides them through four years of rigorous coursework, classroom experiences in local elementary schools and middle schools, apprenticeships with master teachers, and a debt-free college education -- all in exchange for spending three years in the program and the promise that they will return after college to take a guaranteed teaching position in a Broward school.

"We had magnets for medicine, aviation, and law, but we didn't have any program that prepared young adults to go into education," says Robert Parks, a member of the Broward County School Board and one of UTAP's primary initiators and fundraisers. "I'm a teacher by profession, so I thought this model made sense." It made so much sense, in fact, that the model has expanded to five county high schools and is being mirrored by seven more counties across the state.

The program creates a crop of urban teachers with staying power. At hard-to-staff schools in low-income districts, new teachers often burn out within a few years, and for Broward County natives, the challenges of urban schools are familiar territory. "They know the community; they're knowledgeable about the school district," says Parks. "So there's a really short learning curve."

The curriculum is also highly tailored and focused, and overflowing with technology, one-on-one mentoring, and extensive field experience, giving students a leg up on their intended career. In ninth grade, for instance, the future educators create lesson plans and teach elementary school students in teams. By junior or senior year, they are student teaching on their own while in a master teacher's class.

"By the time the students graduate from high school, they already have three to four years' experience in the classroom," says Malease Marko Berg, UTAP's district coordinator and a mentor to its trainees. "They're not just taking attendance. They are using professional-development tools."

The vast majority of UTAP students -- more than 90 percent, says Berg -- are also the first in their families to go on to higher education. A commitment to send these students to college empowers a generation of youth whose goals may not otherwise extend beyond high school. From the first day, UTAP staff take students on field trips to partnering four-year universities, help them navigate grade point averages, financial-aid systems, and college-preparatory exams, and encourage them to develop short-term and long-term goals, so that a college education quickly becomes both tangible and attainable.

When they enter elementary school and middle school classrooms as positive role models, their tenacity and self-confidence shine through. "The message is, 'If I can do it, you can do it,'" says Berg.

Still, the model isn't a quick fix: UTAP's first group of teachers won't graduate from college until 2010. It's a long process, an enormous financial commitment, and, naturally, a lot of work. A program like this, says Parks, "can't be just someone's pet project. It's got to be a districtwide initiative."

But UTAP leaders are confident. Thanks to growing national acclaim (UTAP's umbrella organization, Urban Academies, was a 2006 winner of Harvard University's Innovations in American Government Award) and a committed set of mentor teachers, staff, and community leaders, prospects for continued expansion and improvement are promising. "It's labor-intensive, but it works," says UTAP director Sara Rogers. "It's what we ought to be doing for every child."

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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