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Teacher plan has dropout issue

The TeachPinellas project, which trained people from other professions, has seen about 25 percent of its recruits leave.

Published January 8, 2006

A Pinellas County program that tries to turn professionals from other fields into teachers is experiencing significant growing pains.

One in four new teachers recruited in the first wave of a $737,000 project called TeachPinellas has left the district after less than a semester. Of 40 who completed training last summer, 10 have resigned, citing unruly students, lack of motivation and poor school management.

Meanwhile, only 18 of Pinellas' 514 traditionally trained new teachers - fewer than 4 percent - have left.

Martha Barker, the district's human resources director, finds the situation vexing.

"I'm discouraged with the numbers," she said. "I'm discouraged with the cost relative to the numbers."

But a consultant for the New Teacher Project, the nonprofit company the district hired to select, recruit and train 150 educators over 18 months for TeachPinellas, calls the 25 percent decline "good attrition."

"We try to get the best candidates, but even among that group there will be some who choose not to stay," said Maria Canales, a 24-year-old former teacher from Baton Rouge who directs the program here. "We're actually okay with them not staying. If a teacher isn't happy, it won't be good for our students."

The question of how to attract quality teachers is a big one for Florida educators, who say voter-mandated class size reduction has created a huge demand.

"It's one of the most critical issues facing Florida today," said deputy education chancellor Pam Stewart.

Even if all 20,000 teachers certified in 2003-04 stay in Florida schools, only about 20 percent of the need for 2006-07 will be addressed, Stewart said.

That shortage, along with doubts about the ability of traditional education colleges to produce enough teachers, prompted Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox to turn to the New Teacher Project. Wilcox used the New York company to supply teachers for the East Baton Rouge school district when he was superintendent there.

While he finds the decline in the number of Pinellas teachers recruited by the program disappointing, Wilcox does not blame TeachPinellas.

"My sense is it had to do with our level of support more than it did the program itself," he said. "I'm not sure if, from the School Board to my own human resources team to the instructional staff, we felt we had a need for the program."

Such an attitude demonstrates an unwillingness to try new things, Wilcox said. And those who point to the program's cost - about $9,000 per teacher so far - are missing the point, he said.

But Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he expects more tangible results from a program on which the district has spent nearly $1-million.

"It doesn't cost us a nickel to hire someone from a college of education," Moore said. "If the district is paying for this, we ought to be getting something better than what we're getting for free."

Moore also expressed concern that while one of TeachPinellas' selling points was that it would recruit minority teachers, the district was more successful in attracting African-American teachers through traditional means, such as visits to predominantly black colleges.

According to the National Center for Education Information, more than 200,000 people have decided to change careers and become teachers since 1985. They made the transformation with the help of more than 120 alternative certification programs offered in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

On average, such nontraditional teachers are 35 years old and have seven to eight years' experience in another profession. Those statistics match those of professionals in the first two of three cohorts of the TeachPinellas program.

Among the TeachPinellas candidates who interviewed last spring, 38 percent have advanced degrees. Their average grade point average was 3.3. The demographics are similar for a second group, which trained in the fall and began teaching Jan. 2.

Applications are being accepted now for the third group, scheduled to begin training in June.

Members of the second group had the advantage of hands-on training in the classroom, said Canales, the program director. The first cohort did not have that opportunity because it trained in the summer when school was not in session.

Jeffrey Pincus, who left private practice as a dentist to become a chemistry teacher at Seminole High School, said classroom training would have made all the difference in the world. "Looking back, I'd have to say they did the best job they could have done in three weeks," said Pincus, who is 55. "But there's no substitute for being in the classroom with real live students as opposed to adults pretending to be students."

Jennifer Wilson, who quit her job at the Pinellas Education Foundation's Stavros Institute to teach language arts at Gibbs High, agreed the program did its best. But it would have been impossible for TeachPinellas to fit candidates to a school's specific needs, Wilson, 28, said.

"In the training, you're so far removed from the reality of the classroom," she said. "You can't really visualize that type of thing until you're at the copy machine with four people ahead of you and there's no toner left."

Though Wilson was assured there would be additional support once she began teaching, she found that wasn't always the case.

"I'm essentially making it up as I go along," she said. "I'm just sort of putting my own ideas out there and hoping they'll go well."

Judy Clayton, a 37-year-old TeachPinellas recruit who was hired to teach language arts at Tyrone Middle School, also expected more training. The ongoing support promised by TeachPinellas has been more social than instructional, she said.

Lack of support is one of the main reasons new teachers leave the classroom, said Heather Peske of the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit group.

"You can give teachers a lot of tools for their toolbox before they get into the classroom, but once they get in class they may not know how to use them, or they might not know which one is appropriate in a certain circumstance," she said.

A better way to support new teachers is through school and district-based programs, Peske said.

Pinellas' district-based training program, Transition to Teaching, is supposed to kick in once the teachers are in the classroom. But the program underwent personnel changes last semester, which could have accounted for a sense among some TeachPinellas teachers that they were "out of the loop."

The few short weeks TeachPinellas spent exposing them to everything from behavior management to preparation for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test simply wasn't enough for several teachers, including Cassandra McManus. She left Pinellas Park High halfway through the semester.

McManus, 31, said she still supports TeachPinellas "100 percent." But the former substitute teacher, who majored in business at the University of Wisconsin, decided to move to Tallahassee to work on an advanced degree at Florida State University.

"It was a heart-breaking experience (to leave)," she said. "You have this goal and it's important to you. But teaching is not for everyone. Sometimes, you just don't know until you get there."

Time will tell if the program will provide Pinellas County with a new way of selecting and recruiting teachers, said Barker, the human resources director. She said she is eager to see how many teachers from the second and third TeachPinellas cohorts stay.'

"You can't measure success right now," she said. "I think it's too soon."

[Last modified January 8, 2006, 00:43:05]

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