‘We Knew We Had to Grow Our Own’

Building an expert teacher workforce in Fresno, California

Photo: shutterstock

Fresno Unified had a problem. The fourth largest school district in California was experiencing teacher shortages, and the district was recruiting from as far away as Mexico to fill spots. But according to Teresa Morales, an administrator in charge of teacher development for the district, they also realized they had a retention problem.

“We focused so much on recruitment, and then we realized they [new teachers] would come for short periods of time and then they would end up leaving,” she said, tending to return to their home communities.

With its agricultural surroundings, high poverty rates, and lack of proximity to major universities, Fresno can be a tough place to acclimate to without a support system.

Teacher turnover was hard on students and hard on the district, which preferred to focus more on training and teacher development.

Enter the Teacher Residency Program, one of a handful of teacher pipeline projects Fresno Unified has tried. “We knew we had to grow our own,” Morales said. She and her colleagues knew that with the right resources and partnerships in place, Fresno had the resources to do it.

Despite its bad rap, Fresno boasts a rich immigrant population, strong sense of community, and a local branch of a state university. “We wanted to hire people who live here in Fresno and who wanted to stay here in Fresno.”

The district’s vision was to build a stronger workforce of expert teachers well trained to meet the specific needs of Fresno’s student body. The district’s 73,000 students are some of the most diverse in the country. Upwards of 50 different languages are heard in the hallways—Hmong, Khmer, and Lao, Spanish, and more. Students are also very poor. Child poverty jumped 16 percentage points in the city during the recession and has since begun to decline. But four in ten children in Fresno are still living in poverty, making it even more imperative, Morales said, that they have expert teachers in front of them every day.

The Fresno Teacher Residency Program is a joint effort between Fresno Unified School District and Fresno State University. The program allows students to receive a teaching credential from Fresno State and a master’s degree while teaching in Fresno Unified classrooms. The program emphasizes the importance of learning in a school community and understanding the culture and routines of a school community and providing ongoing mentoring.

Students apprentice in a classroom with a mentor team and have early and continuous field experiences while taking courses. The program emphasizes collaboration and onsite learning. Students go through the program with a cohort of 25 other students.

“We know that authentic feedback happens when you have strong relationships,” Morales said. “With a co-teacher that you are working with for a more extended period of time, they can get to a very deep level of feedback. That doesn’t happen when you are moving from person to person. We want to build that strong relationship with residents.”

Students receive a stipend to cover the cost of tuition and are guaranteed a teaching job in Fresno Unified on successfully completing the program. Coursework is co-taught by University faculty and Fresno Unified staff, and students also participate in Saturday professional development and workshop programs that the district offers for new teachers.

This model was very attractive to Bong Bai Thao, who had spent four years working in a private child care center after graduation from college. One of 10 children, Thao had always liked working with young children, but says she may have lacked the resources to complete her master’s degree and teaching certification if it weren’t for the teacher residency model.

“It was a second chance for me,” she said.

Thao started as a kindergarten teacher at Holland Elementary School this fall, and said she is particularly looking forward to working with families and building relationships with the children in her class.

“My professors really stressed the importance of getting to know where the kids come from,” Thao said, “know their environment, know their community. It helps because where I’ll be teaching, that’s my community. I know what goes on in the area.” Thao said she thinks forming close relationships her students and their families will ultimately make her a better teacher.

In a 2016 report, the Learning Policy Institute found that well-designed and well-implemented teacher residency models may create long-term benefits for districts, including greater gender and racial diversity in the workforce, better retention rates, and better student outcomes.

Fresno is only in its second year of placing teachers through this program. But Morales said the district is gathering retention data and expects to see a high retention rate as a result of teacher preparation and new teacher supports. They are also hopeful about the impact on student achievement.

“Building teacher capacity is the single best way to support a student’s learning,” Morales said.

Aaron Covarrubias teaches fifth grade at Homan Elementary School on Fresno’s Westside. He was attracted to the residency program because of the guaranteed  job on completion. “The principal that hired me had seen me teaching, she’d seen me prepare lesson plans, so she already knew my skills,” he said.

Covarrubias and Thao both said the specific knowledge they gained about Fresno Unified’s curriculum, standards, and policies— like how to work the student information system—helped them feel more prepared for their first year of teaching.

The Teacher Residency Program is one of a handful of teacher pipeline programs run by the district. Others include a teachers’ academy that offers high school students teaching experience as a way to encourage them to consider teaching in the district as a career, and a training program to encourage the district’s paraprofessionals to become certified teachers.

Covarrubias, who emigrated from Mexico to the United States when he was a child, said his background makes him a stronger teacher for students in Fresno.

“It’s imperative for teachers like me to be in front of these students,” he said, “because seeing somebody like me, it reminds them that’s it’s possible to attend school and succeed in life. I constantly remind them that I came here when I was in fourth grade, I didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t make excuses, so don’t make excuses. It is possible.”

“In my school, a lot of the students are very poor and there are a lot of problems at home. They see me and they are able to relate to that. And it helps, even if I speak to them in a few phrases or words in Spanish. Even just a phrase or two, it just makes them smile.”

Covarrubias is now working as a mentor for incoming student teachers in the residency program, and hopes to eventually go into educational administration.

Author:

Sarah Jackson is a writer based in Berkeley, Ca. and partner at HiredPen Inc., where she covers education and social policy.