Jessica Wilson reminds her prekindergartners to share, say “thank you” and make room for one more student at the table.
Lessons in manners and social skills are mixed in with more traditional subjects in her colorful classroom at Putnam Heights Elementary School, 1601 NW 36.
“There are a lot of friends over here,” Wilson says to 10 students playing with plastic building parts on the rug. “Are there enough pieces to share?”
The first-year teacher seems at ease as she moves from one group of students to another, asking questions that challenge their thinking.
That's because the training she received through the Urban Teacher Preparation Academy gave her the experience and confidence to step into the job, she said.
“It was very specific to the challenges I would face in an urban setting,” Wilson said. “It helped me prepare for the environment I was going into.”
The training gives student teachers extra information on working with English language learners, interacting with diverse populations and teaching children living in poverty.
They spend their senior year working with a mentor teacher at an Oklahoma City Public Schools site as a paid teaching assistant.
And after they graduate from college, the new teachers meet monthly for two years with National Board Certified Teacher mentors who share their experience and advice.
“That's my favorite part,” Wilson said.
Wilson, second-grade teacher Jennifer Lopez and third-grade teacher Nikki Waller all are academy participants from the University of Central Oklahoma who did their student teaching last school year and were hired this year at Putnam Heights.
“It helped me become an overall, well-rounded teacher,” said Lopez, who once thought she wanted to be a nurse.
The full year receiving professional development and learning classroom management skills in an urban school sealed her career path.
Waller said the program mentally prepared her to understand the difficulties students deal with and granted her responsibility for those students. When she was given her own class, it felt like her second year of teaching.
“I see the one year of student teaching as my first year,” Waller said. “They are totally supporting you the first year. Then they step back and we're ready.”
The program benefits not only new teachers, but the schools that hire them, Putnam Heights Principal Susan Carlsen said.
Teachers who go through the program are more prepared to take charge of a classroom than those who have a traditional student teaching experience, Carlesen said.
“It's a win-win. They fit right in and have confidence. They're not afraid to speak up.”
The Urban Teacher Preparation Academy began in 2009 with a $400,000 grant from the Inasmuch Foundation as a partnership between UCO and the Oklahoma City Public Schools.
The original nine participants did their yearlong student teaching in 2010-11 at three schools, said Karyn Hutchens, program coordinator.
Of the 34 students who have graduated from the program, 91 percent are teaching today, 74 percent in Oklahoma City schools, Hutchens said.
The University of Oklahoma came on board last year and more than tripled the program resources, Hutchens said.
“We really are ready to grow it,” she said. “We'd like to offer the opportunity to other campuses.”
The OU participants are out in the schools this year and loving it, said Teresa DeBacker, associate dean for professional education at OU.
“They are very positive about it,” DeBacker said. “They found it even more rewarding than they thought it would be.”
She said the student teachers returned to the Norman campus during the school district's fall break to share what they've learned with other education majors.
OU senior Kira Roth is doing her student teaching in a fifth-grade classroom at Putnam Heights Elementary and hopes to be hired there next year.
“The biggest support is the connection with others in the program and meetings that are reflective of the actual issues,” Roth said. “We can implement immediately the ideas from meetings.”
All education students learn about classroom management, English language learners and working with families in poverty, DeBacker said.
Academy students aren't “just learning about these things, but seeing and dealing with them face-to-face,” she said.
“Not everyone is cut out to do this,” DeBacker said.
She and Hutchens spent three days recently interviewing education majors to enter the program next semester. The 20 students selected — 13 from UCO and seven from OU — will be placed in Oklahoma City schools next fall.
UCO also offers a Prospective Teachers Academy to identify high school juniors and seniors in local urban school districts who want to be teachers. The goal is to help the districts develop a “grow your own” framework, Hutchens said.
“We're trying to get these students early so they know what it takes to be a teacher,” she said. “We're showing them they can do it.”
Some may need to be encouraged to stay out of trouble, get a good ACT score and investigate how to finance college. They are brought to the campus for a visit.
“Some of these students are going to be remarkable teachers,” Hutchens said. “This is the kind of teacher the young students need. They can really relate to them.”
We're trying to get these students early so they know what it takes to be a teacher.”