ESD officials hope SAU partnership will bring more teachers

El Dorado Schools Assistant Superintendent Melissa Powell on Monday announced a new partnership with Southern Arkansas University, which she said she hopes will bring and keep more teachers in the district.

During Monday night’s School Board meeting, Powell gave a presentation on the district’s teacher recruitment and retention plans. She said internal data gathered by the district shows that student-teachers who work in the district want to return when they finish their degrees.

“Our data says that if somebody does their internship here, they stay. So if we can get a student teacher, they very often don’t apply somewhere else, this is the district they want to work in,” she said.

Powell said she and Superintendent Jim Tucker talked to other school districts’ officials and at districts outside Arkansas and began considering ways they could incentivize student-teachers to come to El Dorado.

“Could it look like a stipend? Could it look like a bonus? Something that would make somebody want to choose El Dorado,” Powell said. “So we started talking to some key players at SAU, that’s where we get the majority of our student teachers, and we started talking about the possibility of paying some internships, and what that could look like.”

Meanwhile, Little Rock-based nonprofit Forward Arkansas had the same idea, Powell said. The organization announced a grant opportunity for universities that would provide funds for expanded student-teaching programs.

“So when they announced this grant opportunity, SAU jumped on quickly because they knew that they had a district to partner with. We’d already been talking about this, Mr. Tucker was ready to move forward,” Powell said. “At that time, maybe we were thinking three or four internships, maybe. But it’s better than that.”

SAU was ultimately selected, along with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, to receive the grant, which will total $1.8 million each for both universities over three years to “increase the quantity, quality and diversity of Arkansas’s teacher workforce.”

Dr. Neelie Dobbins, chair of SAU’s Department of Teacher Education, said the El Dorado School District will pay the student-teachers that choose to do their residencies there, while SAU will use the grant funds to train mentor teachers and other faculty at partner districts, provide technology for student-teachers and supplement costs for paying student-teachers at some districts.

Dobbins said SAU is reimagining student-teaching with the hopes of graduating “candidates,” a term she used to distinguish student-teachers from K-12 students, prepared to start teaching effectively immediately after earning their degrees.

“We used to just do it for one semester. We called that gradual release, where they’d observe for a few weeks, then take over (teaching the class). Now the situation is more where we want it to be a co-teaching model, where the entire time, the resident is teaching the class with their mentor,” Dobbins said.

The change will help prepare teachers better, she said, and it will provide a better learning environment for students.

“Learning loss happens when you have a new teacher in the classroom,” Dobbins said. “But in a co-teaching model, research has proven that, actually, there’s learning gains for all students, so our candidates in a co-teaching model versus a gradual release model is better for our K-12 learners.”

SAU started a pilot program to try out the new student-teaching model, including payment for residents, this semester. Nine paid, full-time student-teachers are currently working in the ESD, with their first classroom walk-throughs scheduled for next week, Dobbins said.

The new student-teaching model will give SAU the opportunity to fill any holes in student-teachers’ knowledge in real time, so they can immediately implement needed changes in the classroom.

“When we do our walk-throughs next week, we’ll look at the data and then have a seminar regarding the things they don’t know,” Dobbins said. “My analogy is that we’re filling the holes in their Swiss cheese. We have real time data that shows what you don’t know, so we can now provide you instruction about that specific thing and help you fix it, so they’re going to become more effective Day One teachers because we’ve filled more holes.”

For this first, pilot semester, the ESD budgeted $131,622 to pay the student-teachers. Powell said they’re paid the same salaries as paraprofessionals, about $17,000 per year, along with…

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