Learning Experience

Friday, March 30, 2012

It’s too quiet for a classroom filled with 20 teenagers.

There are no whispered side conversations, no papers crinkling as notes are folded and passed, no tell-tale click of a texting phone.

There’s also nearly no participation.

For 42 minutes, Kevin Carr stands at the front of a classroom in Woodburn’s Academy of International Studies, teaching ninth- and 10th-grade students ways to visually represent algebraic functions. He wanders back and forth, projects students’ work on a screen, asks questions, tells stories and even cracks a few jokes.

Carr is no stranger to teaching. Originally a high school physics teacher, he’s now a professor in Pacific University’s College of Education, teaching others to lead middle and high school classes.

Still, the students here resist his charms. They remain stoic, respectfully attentive but unmoved by his prompts for class participation.

“You’re right,” Carr says after class, reviewing the experience with math teacher Brea Cohen, the teacher of record, and teaching candidate Chris Pokorny. “I’m still totally in the dark as to whether they get it.”

The three teachers take time to talk about the lesson, to brainstorm ways to engage the students, and to critique the delivery.

Pokorny will try to mimic the morning’s lesson, adapting it to his own style—and a few less reticent groups of students—throughout the day.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Pokorny tells Carr. “It gives me a few ideas.”

This kind of give-and-take with an instructor is rare in most teacher preparation programs. Under the traditional model, Pokorny may have worked with Cohen, his mentor teacher, for some ideas. He may have told Carr about the ultra-quiet class during a once- or twice-a-semester evaluation meeting. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to call his university instructor one evening to discuss a challenging class and have that instructor in the classroom demonstrating teaching methods the next morning.

But this isn’t the traditional teacher preparation program. Pokorny is one of six students in a Pacific pilot program that embeds potential science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching candidates in Woodburn schools for a year-long master of arts in teaching (MAT) program.

“The way the program is designed, because we’re embedded in the district, moments like this can happen,” Carr said.

Studies estimate that the United States will need some 10,000 to 25,000 new STEM teachers annually. President Obama has touted the need to recruit and train math and science teachers as part of his education platform, and a public-private partnership called the 100K in 10 campaign has drawn commitments and money from everyone from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to NASA to Google.

The National Science Foundation administers the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which helps professionals in math and science go back to school to become teachers. Many students in Pacific’s Woodburn MAT STEM program receive $15,000 Noyce scholarships to help pay for their one-year program (a few MAT students at Pacific’s Eugene and Forest Grove campuses also receive the scholarship). In turn, they commit to working in a “high-needs” school district after earning their teaching licenses.

But Carr says it’s not enough to just recruit new teachers to old training programs. The teacher preparation model needs innovations, too, to attract qualified people away from science and math jobs. Changes also must attract more women and minorities to the field, ensure long-term retention of teachers and, ultimately, provide the best math and science education possible to the next generations.

Woodburn is one of the fastest growing communities in Oregon, as well as the most diverse. The compact downtown area sits on the railroad that played prominently in the town’s foundation, though no trains stop here anymore. One ancient steam engine is on display in a downtown park, but most green space is devoted to soccer fields, booked every weekend by teams for toddlers and grandparents alike. The storefronts downtown advertise predominantly in Spanish, and local restaurants are almost exclusively taquarias.

The community holds to its agricultural roots—its founder, George Settlemeier, was a prominent nurseryman—with additional economic boosts from the local MacLaren Youth Correctional Center and the 1999 addition of the Woodburn Outlet Mall. Woodburn also could be considered a bedroom community for people who work in nearby Salem and Portland—each just 25 miles away on I-5. The city’s unemployment rate, though, rivals the state average, and poverty is high for a Portland-area community.

The Woodburn School District easily qualifies as a “high-needs” learning community by federal standards. About 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and 50-plus percent are classified as English-language learners. The “high-needs” designation is a two-sided coin for Woodburn, though. State test scores are admittedly low, and students do have more challenges to overcome on their academic journeys. But, Woodburn also has benefited from a combination of federal grants and visionary educational leaders.

Rule No. 1 for working in Woodburn is recognizing that language and culture differences aren’t a problem; they’re an asset. Woodburn is in its 15th year as a bilingual school district. That means students take classes in at least two different languages—not just language classes, but math, literature and science classes. By graduation, almost every student speaks two languages fluently, and many speak three languages. The original plan was for students to take classes in their native language and English, but parents saw more opportunity. Native Russian-speakers—a prominent group in the town that is home to a large group of Russian Orthodox Old Believers—often take their classes in Spanish and English, learning Russian at home, for example.

Recently, Woodburn started administering high-school level Advanced Placement language exams to eighth-graders, who are scoring as well as their 11th- and 12th-grade counterparts nationwide and earning college credit before starting high school.

Woodburn commits to a professional learning community model and, in the past five years, broke its large high school into four small learning communities. Grants and a growing population also have allowed the district to retain some of the extras that so many districts have had to abandon in tight budgetary years—Woodburn is the only district in Oregon, for example, to have free access to high school sports for students.

These innovations make it a “high-needs” school district that doesn’t actually have the same trouble attracting teachers experienced by many of its ilk.

“We’re very well-known across universities in Oregon,” said Superintendent David Bautista. “When a student has language skills, they want to be with us. Teachers want to be in our district.”

Even with the ability to be a bit choosy, Bautista says he was anxious to work with the Pacific pilot program.

“The philosophical understanding Dr. Carr has, the quality, fidelity and consistency of the program” made it an attractive partner, Bautista said.

“It becomes a lab for STEM students to see the complexity of what it is to teach our students,” he said.

They become better teachers for diverse populations wherever they go, he said. And, though recruitment isn’t a big problem overall for Woodburn, attracting upper-level STEM teachers who are fluent in Spanish, Russian and, most recently, Somali, is a challenge.

“We’re talking about the level of proficiency...it takes to teach calculus in Spanish,” Bautista said. “You can’t be stumbling over the words.”

The needs of K-12 schools—and their students—are changing, and that means teachers need to change, too. Carr said he’s encouraged by the diverse backgrounds of prospective students who were drawn to the Woodburn MAT STEM in its inaugural year.

“Each of the six people is out-of-the-box in some respect,” he said. “I’ve been doing MATs for 14 years, and there’s always a certain number out-of-the-box, but not usually the whole group.”

Ibrahim Mesanovic is a Bosnian refugee. In Bosnia, he was a chemical engineer, then a high school chemistry teacher. He fled his war-torn home in 1992, and moved to Germany, where he organized a school for refugees and also worked as a journalist.

In 1997, he immigrated to the United States, and he’s been working ever since to gain the qualifications necessary to get back to the classroom. He’s learned English—his fifth fluent language—and by next fall may at last have a master’s degree and teaching license.

“This program is just the program for me, because of my background,” Mesanovic said.

Rebekah Gomez grew up in southeast England and worked as an architect in London and in the U.S. She moved to Woodburn with her husband, and they had five children before he died five years ago.

“One or two years after he died, architecture was not working for me,” she said. She had taught and coached swimming, taught art in her children’s classes, taught summer school and home-schooled her own children for a time. Teaching was the logical next step.

“A friend suggested the [master’s program] at George Fox,” she said, “but I had a 4-year-old, there was no way I could do it. How do you move forward with five kids alone?”

Now that her kids are a bit older—7 to 17—she was able to explore, and she found the Pacific program right in her own community.

“My kids go to school down the road...it’s kind of a miracle to me,” she said. “The more I do it, the more I realize this is what I should be doing.”

Recently, the pilot program was extended for a second year, and Pacific has leased an office in Woodburn for administrative and student meeting space.

Carr said he hopes that the pilot will grow into a permanent part of Pacific’s curriculum, and that it will continue to build ways to attract nontraditional students. 

He also foresees a partnership with the local community college that would allow students to gain their core classes through the community college then take Pacific courses for an undergraduate teaching degree in Woodburn. He said that there’s untapped potential in young Latina women in the community who don’t have a tradition of going away to college but who may pursue higher education if it’s local and connects to a clear job prospect.

At the same time, he said, he hopes that some of the innovations of the Woodburn pilot will translate throughout the College of Education.

“It’s a bit of an experiment and model with ideas we will apply in Eugene and Forest Grove,” Carr said.

“For me, I can only see a benefit,” said Ricardo Marquez, principal of French Prairie Middle School, where Mesanovic and Gomez are among the student-teachers.

“How they learn, see what’s going on, get to hypothesize and test; it’s more like how a doctor trains. It’s innovative. It’s different. ...I would see it as very beneficial.”