- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - The halls at Innovation Central High School were empty as the teachers gathered in the classroom.

The school day had ended hours ago, but the 28 teachers, young and old, black and white, were still here, working to improve their craft. Their goal: become better urban educators.

And on this particular night, the first step in that journey started with a question. Why are you a teacher, their instructor asked?

At his request, they took to Twitter, typing their answers in 140 characters or less.

“I’m a teacher because I have a passion and a mission to impact the lives of kids,” one teacher writes.

“I’m a teacher because children deserve my enthusiasm and passion for learning,” another says.

It was a warmup of sorts as the teachers settled in for the two-hour class, part of Davenport University’s recently launched College of Urban Education, according to The Grand Rapids Press ( http://bit.ly/1InQyLa ).

A partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools, the district’s teachers who complete the program will be awarded a master’s degree in urban education. All 28 teachers participating are from GRPS. Many teach at Innovation Central, but teachers throughout the district are enrolled as well.

Andre Perry, the college’s founding dean, said the program is unique because it changes the model for teacher preparation programs.

In a traditional teacher preparation program, students spend the majority of their time at a college or university, taking classes and attending lectures, Perry said. Davenport’s program is different because it’s housed entirely at Innovation Central.

Teachers take their classes at the school, and faculty offices are housed there as well. Once a week, a faculty member visits the classroom of each participating teacher, critiquing their performance and offering tips to improve, Perry said.

The idea, Perry said, is that teacher preparation programs have become too separated from the K-12 environment.

“The more and more distance, the more and more irrelevant we become,” he said. “Proximity matters, place actually matters.”

Back in the classroom, after the teachers had finished tweeting, the discussion shifts to the most recent reading assignment. For the next two hours, the class discusses teaching strategies and ways to improve student learning. They demonstrate the strategies through skits performed in front of their peers.

Their instructor, Roque Neto, says he was eager to join Davenport’s program because it gave him the opportunity to “walk the walk” with the teachers. In addition to Neto, the program has two adjunct instructors.

“I just don’t want to be here, throwing theories at them,” said Neto, who formerly taught at St. Mary’s College of California. “I want to help them make meaning of these theories at the practical level.”

Participating teachers say they’re glad to have that level of feedback and support.

“Our students face very unique challenges,” said Whitley Eager, 25, who teaches freshman U.S. History at Ottawa Hills High School. “When I first heard about this program, initially I was interested, because urban education - those are my students. I was excited to get these tools to better help them.”

For Dan Morse, who teaches world history at Innovation, it’s learning how to address the achievement gaps that so often persist between students who are rich or poor, black or white.

“I want to find reasons to address those gaps, and I want to find a way to really help our communities’ students level the playing field so everyone has equal opportunities,” he said.

Davenport’s program was created in partnership with GRPS, but is open to anyone who wishes to apply. As of now, only GRPS educators are enrolled, but Davenport is hopeful more new and aspiring educators will seek to join in the future. Perry said he hopes to do that through recruiting.

“We have got to go out there, not just to find students who want to be teachers, but we have to find teachers who really meet the profiles we’re looking for,” Perry said, referring to teachers who are educated in high-demand fields such as science, technology, engineering and math, as well as teachers of color, who reflect the student body found in urban schools.

GRPS is covering tuition for eligible teachers up to a certain point, but Davenport is covering the “cost beyond what they are not eligible for,” Perry said. Davenport may not cover those additional expenses in future cohorts.

The GRPS educators are enrolled part-time, so they should finish the program in two years. A full-time student could finish the program in one year, Davenport says.

Teaching students who live in an urban district often requires special skills, Perry said, and his college strives to help teachers build those skills. Teachers, depending on their chosen subject, will take classes in math, science and English, but also in areas such as “family and community partnership practice” and “culturally competent classroom management.”

And he’s confident the results will benefit students.

“I don’t think the problem is so much the inability of disenfranchised people to deal with problems,” Perry said. “I think there’s a bigger issue with the privileged classes and the privileged institutions changing and living up to our responsibilities.”

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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