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'Intense' UB teacher residency program tackles diversity, retention in Buffalo schools

Sydney Favors decided to become an educator because of the need for more black teachers.

Coral Lopez Jimenez realized she had a knack for teaching while working as a college tutor.

And Steven McIlwain Jr. believes he was meant to be a teacher all along.

“I feel like it was a calling for me,” McIlwain said.

They are among the 13 graduate students forging a different path into the teaching profession as the inaugural class in a new teacher residency program at the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education.

Traditionally, those entering the profession complete their college coursework in an accredited degree program, and spend a few months in the field student teaching.

The new residency program – borrowed from the medical school model and geared toward college grads with no prior experience in education – provides another option.

Coral Lopez Jimenez of Tonawanda, right, and classmate Steven McIlwain Jr. participate in a class at the University at Buffalo. The pair are part of a new teacher residency program in the Buffalo Public Schools. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

These 13 will be embedded full time in the Buffalo Public Schools for a year co-teaching alongside veteran teachers starting in September. Meanwhile, they’re taking classes over the summer, as well as at night and online during the fall and spring semesters, to obtain their master’s degree at the end of 15 months.

And they get an $18,000 stipend, to boot.

Suzanne Rozenblith, dean of the graduate school, said the residency model was designed to address a changing teacher market with a couple of objectives in mind:

One, better prepare those entering the profession for the challenges they’ll face in an urban school system.

The latest problem in education: How to attract new teachers

Two, recruit more minorities to diversify the teaching ranks, which has long been an issue in Buffalo.

Jimenez is Hispanic. McIlwain and Favors are African American.

“I said, ‘Maybe I should become a teacher,’ ” said Favors, who graduated from SUNY Buffalo State in May. “Black students, black girls especially, they need to see that in the classroom.”

This discussion is really part of a much larger debate over how best to train teachers and what that ultimately means for student performance.

Colleges are facing more competition from alternative teacher prep programs with less focus on education theory and more on getting teaching candidates into the classroom faster for practical experience.

That has given rise to this teacher residency model at institutions like UB. Canisius College, as well, started a similar two-year program last year when graduate students began their residencies in Buffalo charter schools.

“You hear about a lot of alternative-certification programs and what sort of becomes clear is the idea that going through a formal university-based program is really being challenged,” Rosenblith said.

“So that means those of us who believe in formal, university programs can do one of two things: Dig in and say ‘No, this is the right way’– and there’s good evidence to suggest that – or say, ‘What is really going on here?’” she said. “And what is going on is people can’t afford the incredible amount of student loan debt, particularly to go into a field where their return on investment isn’t there.”

“I think,” Rosenblith said, “universities have a responsibility to figure out a way to respect this concern and become a little bit more nimble without sacrificing the key features of university-based programs.”

Rosenblith approached Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash about the residency program and partnering with Buffalo schools to help address the district’s concerns about teacher shortages and diversity.

Teacher diversity has long been a problem for Buffalo, where two-thirds of the students are either black or Latino, but 87 percent of their teachers are white.

“I like it,” Cash told the dean. “Let’s go. Let’s try it.”

'It's intense'

The Buffalo Teachers Federation has some questions about implementation of the program, but acknowledged the benefits.

The district, meanwhile, also has had a problem with losing young teachers to the suburbs after a year or two, because they weren’t prepared to deal with some of the issues that go along with teaching in a poor, urban school system, Cash said.

“It’s challenging, hard work, so this program will give them a much more robust induction into the profession,” Cash said. “They’ll be more mature and grounded and know one way or another after that initial year whether this is for them.”

To launch the residency program, UB was awarded a total of $4 million in grants over five years from the U.S. Education Department and the Cullen Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on education in Buffalo, said Amanda Winkelsas, the program’s director.

Among the roughly 45 applicants, 13 were selected for the first class – eight of them minorities. Anywhere from 15 to 20 graduate students will be chosen in subsequent years of the grant for a total of 70, Winkelsas said.

“I think me being a man of color in an urban school system, I will be able to make that connection with the kids,” said McIlwain, 23.

McIlwain graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness from Buffalo State, but decided he wanted to do something to impact the lives of children.

He’s happy about his decision to teach, but acknowledged he’s a little anxious about September.

During the school year, the residents will be co-teaching along with a veteran teacher at one of four participating Buffalo schools: South Park and Hutchinson-Central Technical high schools, as well as BUILD Community School on Fougeron Street and School 6 on South Division Street.

“I’m being real with you, it’s intense,” Jimenez said of the program.

Jimenez, 27, has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and thought she was headed into research before someone suggested teaching. After graduating from UB, she substituted at Hutch-Tech, reinforcing her decision to enter the residency program.

The $18,000 stipend for living expenses is a huge help, she said.

“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity,” Jimenez said.

Winkelsas said all the residents receive partial scholarships toward tuition, too, but they also are required to remain with Buffalo schools for three years.

“As a former student of Buffalo schools, I’m happy about that,” said Favors, 21, who will be embedded at South Park.

“I know some people get their master’s in education and then leave,” Favors said, “but how are you not contributing to the community that bred you? I want to stay here and be that teacher that I saw growing up.”

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