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CAMBRIDGE — A few upstate school districts are piloting a program that brings the residency model of job training to the classroom.

Cambridge Central School District and Hudson Falls Central School District, as well as Beekmantown Central School District further north in Clinton County, have introduced the Classroom Academy to their schools to give prospective teachers the opportunity to learn by doing.

The two-year master’s degree program is offered through SUNY Plattsburgh and is one of the most thorough teaching programs in the country. In addition to the normal 12-credit-hour course load, students are full-time residents in a school classroom where they work with an attending teacher and, over the course of the two years, take control of the class from start to finish.

This amount of training is not necessary for becoming a certified teacher in New York, and the student-teaching experience for a standard education program is a matter of weeks, not years, but Classroom Academy Program Director Colleen McDonald said this process doesn’t prepare new teachers for all aspects of the profession.

“We believe traditional student teaching doesn’t really reflect the needs of the field anymore,” McDonald said. “This program gives people time to amass a toolkit they can take into the classroom and builds their confidence as well as their skill set.”

McDonald said many other professions already have a residency model, and with the complexity of modern teaching, a program that gives students an extended hands-on experience is the best way to prepare a potential teacher.

She said there’s a benefit for the student also because the extended experience makes them high-priority candidates for schools looking to hire, as well as the student learning whether teaching is really for them as a career.

In practice

The program is a gradual process of handing the resident teacher more and more responsibilities as they progress. McDonald said initially the residents observe the teacher for a few weeks, co-plan lessons and occasionally teacher sections of a class.

Lucas Sconzo, a first-year resident at Hudson Falls High School, said when he began actual instruction it was with small groups to gain comfort and familiarity with his classes.

Sconzo said he already had some experience teaching through an English teaching program in China and work with adult English as a second language learners when he returned to New York. He said through his coursework and observing his attending teacher, Nathan St. John, he realized there were many aspects of the job he didn’t know he was leaving out.

“That was the first thing I noticed when I got in the classroom with Nate,” Sconzo said. “I was like ‘Oh my God, we’re using things we talked about in class,’ and I realized it’s not just theory on one side and reality on the other.”

Now in the second semester of his first year, Sconzo said he took on an entire unit, which normally runs several weeks, that St. John said he did about 90% on his own. Sconzo said it has been difficult at times, but one of the things that makes the program so beneficial is the constant feedback he gets from an established professional.

“It’s been me struggling and it hasn’t always been easy and it hasn’t always worked, but that’s an important lesson, too,” Sconzo said. “You have to reflect and build on that, and the great thing about Nate is that when things don’t work, he’s really good at saying, ‘You did a good job on this, you need to work on that.’”

Kayleigh Ward, a second-year and lead resident, said after the first year you don’t go back to a break-in period, and she started at about 75% of all teaching right away. She said that by this point in her second year, it’s mostly her classroom and the attending teacher is there to help plan and assist in a professional capacity.

Attending teachers have plenty to adjust to as well. St. John said letting go of control of his classroom was difficult at first.

“The biggest challenge was, after years of teaching, I have a rhythm,” St. John said, “But I have to step back so the resident can learn and have what he needs to learn and grow.”

The costs

The program offers comprehensive training for prospective teachers, but McDonald, Sconzo and Ward said it was not for everyone. Although the program does have a stipend, residents are also full-time students in a master’s program paying tuition in addition to rent and other costs, a prospect that may not seem enticing to someone finishing an undergraduate degree and already saddled with debt.

Ward said she is lucky to be in a position that allowed her the freedom to enroll in the program but doesn’t know if there’s much that can be done to improve the financial burden.

“The pay is difficult and not everyone is going to be able to do this program,” Ward said. “Out of that $22,000, 12 of it is going back to Plattsburgh, but it’s tough to say what else they could actually do.”

Sconzo said the stipend keeps him from having to worry too much about day-to-day expenses, but after working hard to finish his undergraduate degree with no debt, he said he had to take a loan out for the first time to cover some of the costs.

Sconzo and Ward both said they did not feel exploited, and they were cognizant some graduate programs did not offer any sort of compensation at all.

The benefits

The program isn’t just good for preparing teachers, though, according to McDonald. Both Hudson Falls and Cambridge saw an increase in 11th grade ELA Regent’s test passing rates and mastery rates in classes with resident teachers.

Having an extra teacher in the classroom allows more opportunities for small group and individualized instruction, which leads to better outcomes, according to McDonald.

Resident teachers are also easy on district budgets. The total cost for a district after paying the stipend and other costs comes in around $31,000 a year per resident, according to McDonald. That cost is significantly offset, however, by reimbursement funds a district receives through the program’s agreement with BOCES.

The contract makes the program eligible for state aid, which can cover a significant amount of the costs for a district. This is coupled with the fact that after a while in the program, the residents can also fill in as substitutes, which saves districts money.

Cambridge Elementary Principal Colleen Lester said the residents have had a positive impact on her entire faculty, too, as most teachers have learned from the residents and are pushed to elevate their own work knowing they are setting examples for the residents to follow.

Lester said in faculty meetings the residents have brought a fresh perspective to conversations, due to being up to date on all the latest research from their course work, and this perspective can cause seasoned professionals to analyze their own work.

“The residents have upped conversations, and they add a very current perspective to conversations regarding curriculum and planning, because they’re planning in the new age,” Lester said.

Lester also said, as a principal, she would be much more inclined to hire a teacher from the resident program because they get a holistic view of what it means to work in a school.

“With two years you’re getting every single thing that happens in a school,” Lester said. “Interviews tell, but residents have a chance to show they can be there every day and do the job. I will certainly interview them for any positions I have open.”

Ward, graduating this spring and on the job hunt, agreed that the experience made her more desirable to employers, and said she is still waiting to hear back from her top-pick school but has an offer on the table already.

St. John said he thinks the program is a positive direction for the profession overall, and could lead to higher retention rates in a field that sees high turnover in the early going.

“I hope it continues to grow and becomes available to more potential teachers,” St. John said. “I think it will help retain the people who leave, because there’s a significant number of teachers who leave with the first five years.”

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Samuel Northrop is the education reporter for The Post-Star. He can be reached at snorthrop@poststar.com.

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