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Mentoring programs for teachers, combining seasoned veterans with post-graduate rookies, give testament to a profession that is changing as fast as the curriculum it embraces.

"When teachers started years ago, you got the keys to the classroom, the bell rang, the kids came in, and you start teaching them," said Timothy J. Bellonte, teacher/mentor facilitator for the Niagara Falls School District. "We don't look at it that way anymore."

The 650-teacher district launched its mentoring program in 1988, according to Bellonte, but never has it been as vital as today, when 75 pairs of instructors -- or 150 teachers -- are learning from each other.

The three-year mentoring program -- which requires the team to work together for 2 hours a week the first year, 1.5 hours a week the second year and one hour a week during the third year -- has earned high grades from participants.

"The first year of teaching is a huge year," said Samantha Gismondi, who teaches 11th-grade English. "There are a lot of things you can't anticipate until they happen. It helps to talk to another teacher to find out what to do."

Ms. Gismondi, 29, received her teaching certificate in 1996, and immediately applied to 10 school districts in Western New York.

"I didn't have any hot leads," she recalled. "I was just generally applying."

Ms. Gismondi took a position as a substitute in Niagara Falls with the hope of landing a full-time position in the future.

It worked. Now in her second year of the mentoring program, Mrs. Gismondi attributes her early success to her mentor, Lydia Wozniak.

"I was lucky to get her as a mentor," Ms. Gismondi said. "She's very organized and the kids always know what her expectations are."

Ms. Wozniak has taught for 12 years and is currently teaching 10th-grade English at Niagara Falls High School.

Part of the program's success is matching mentors, according to Bellonte. "We always make sure the mentor is across the hall or at least in the same building as the teachers," he said.

Another key ingredient are the incentives offered to both teacher and intern.

For one, mentors and interns earn credit in the Niagara Falls Teachers Center. The center, like those located in school districts throughout the area, offers courses -- calculated in clock hours -- to teachers to increase their pay scale. In Niagara Falls, 15 clock hours is the equivalent of one college credit on the pay scale.

If teachers participate in the mentoring program for the entire three years, Bellonte explained, they could accumulate nine college hours. Ten college hours are needed to increase the pay scale, he said.

For Ms. Wozniak, however, the motivation is much more than money.

"I wish when I was hired the program had been in place," she said. "It's having someone tell you how to do it, and show you some of the shortcuts -- from attendance cards to grade books."

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