Thursday, April 12, 2012

Beyond University-Assisted Partnership: The Professional Development School within a Community School

Dr. JoAnne Ferrara, Chairperson of Curriculum and Instruction at Manhattanville College explains the college's partnership with Thomas A. Edison School, a community school in Port Chester, NY. Two Edison teachers, Barbara Terracciano and Amy Simmons, provide first-hand accounts of teacher development in their community school


With the national focus on student achievement and accountability becoming extremely laser-like, school leaders are seeking creative ways to maximize resources for teachers and student success. Community schools provide the perfect setting where partnering with a higher education institution in the form of a professional development school (PDS), provides a comprehensive strategy for maximizing resources and addressing student’s academic needs. Community schools create a space that facilitates teachers’ professional growth and improves everyone’s practices, including pre-service teachers, college professors and administrators.

In our university-assisted partnership model, addressing the needs of the teachers is equally as important as helping students achieve academic success. Those of us that work in PDS settings believe that student achievement is deeply dependent upon many factors including the quality of teacher education, opportunities for professional development, and access to educational research. Teachers learn best in collaborative, collegial school cultures the where their professional growth and well-being are the norm rather than the exception. For more than a decade, Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York and the Thomas A. Edison School have sustained a PDS partnership focused on providing opportunities for practicing teachers, pre-service teachers, and college faculty to participate in a rich community of learners. In my work as PDS liaison I have witnessed teachers benefit from the professional growth opportunities made available in the strong integrated learning setting of a community school with a PDS component. Community schools/PDSs have the potential to create environments where teachers engage in rich learning experiences beyond their daily life within the classroom.

This unique example of a university assisted partnership enhances teachers’ instructional practices in two critical ways. First, it encourages teachers to open their classrooms to a wide range of members of the college community including professors, undergraduate and graduate pre-service teachers; by turning their classrooms into learning laboratories teachers not only increase their repertoire of skills, but are exposed to cutting-edge research that may improve their practice. Second, as a result of a strong college presence at the school, teachers or principals request on-site staff development related to a need expressed by the staff or goal of the school. The advantage of this type of partnership is that it allows immediate and on- going access to professional development when, and where, it is most needed. The following reflections from two of Edison’s teachers capture their beliefs about the benefits of teaching in a community school.

Barbara Terracciano is a first grade in an inclusive classroom at the Thomas A. Edison School. Prior to working at Edison, Barbara was a middle school social studies teacher at a suburban Catholic school.

Barbara:

“I was a Catholic school teacher for sixteen years before joining the vibrant community of the Thomas A. Edison School. Initially there seemed to be few similarities; however as I became more involved with the various partnerships that exist, specifically the special relationship with Manhattanville College, the parallels became more evident. In a Catholic school, parents and parishioners work together with the teachers and administration to form the school community. Together they nurture academic, social, athletic and religious development in the children through the parish school. In a similar manner, the partners of the community school work together with teachers, administrators and families to form their school community. This network supports the needs specific to our children and their families before, during and after school.

At Edison learning as a professional educator never ends! In my 16 year tenure in Catholic school, professional development was sporadic and rarely involved innovation that would impact the world of teaching. At Edison, we are on the cutting edge of creating the new best practices in our field. I have grown as an innovative and dynamic teacher. I solved problems using a multitude of resources including children’s input. This includes qualitative as well as quantitative research. The children’s reflections upon how it feels to be a student in our community school validate the important work that we do. I’ve extended my teaching (and learning) to the university level where I both take and teach classes. One example is the on-site science methods class that I hosted along with a university professor. It started as a conversation. We met to look at the possibility of developing a syllabus that was mutually beneficial to the needs of our students. What emerged was a model that is now adapted for other site-based courses.

When we first began discussing the possibility of a collaborative field-based science methods class, I was both excited and anxious. Even though I was an experienced teacher, I worried that I lacked the expertise in teaching science for this endeavor. Then there was the issue of time that concerned me. In these days of extensive testing, most of our effort is spent implementing initiatives focused on improving test scores. Science had been relegated to the back burner before we initiated this collaborative model.

Our conversations evoked memories of my own experiences as a science student-using a text book to memorize information for a test with limited hands-on experiences. I rarely recalled the information once the test was complete. I think about the constrained way that I had been teaching science to my students. This is particularly evident when I describe my lessons about insects below.

Before we worked together, I was really apprehensive about teaching with insects. I simply avoided any hands-on lessons, preferring instead to use diagrams and pictures. On my first trip to the pet store to purchase mealworms, I turned and left without buying the insects. My partner in this endeavor, the college professor, came to the classroom and helped me through the process of putting the mealworms in their own habitat using a spoon and oatmeal. She gave me the confidence to attempt something I never would have done alone. When the children returned after lunch, their excitement was contagious! During the next couple of weeks we observed our mealworms’ metamorphous, learning so much through the experience. Another example was with our butterfly garden. With her guidance, I was able to hang the chrysalis. Who would have thought I could do that? Working with this college professor provided me with more confidence in dealing with insects, but more importantly, it has enabled me to provide the type of inquiry-based learning to my students that results in greater understanding.

In addition to what I have learned about teaching science, I enjoy the time talking with the pre-service teachers about their lessons. Each of the pre-service teachers comes in to discuss their lesson plan a week before they are scheduled. When they come to me, I ask them, what they want to do, and we talk about how their lesson fits into our class curriculum, given time constraints and student needs. It’s so rewarding for me to sit and talk to the pre-service teachers; (hopefully) helping them relax. It also encourages me to be more reflective of my own instructional practice.

This inspiration is a gift I have received from working in the setting of Edison School where all the teachers are learners and collaborators. The types of intellectual conversations that exist before, during and after school at Edison enhance the learning environment for all of our children and adults.

Amy Simmons is a second grade teacher at the Thomas A. Edison School and alum of Manhattanville College. In a former life, Amy was employed in the business sector.

Amy:

Without a doubt, working at Edison is more complicated than working at most other schools. We compare Edison to a training hospital that has patients, interns, doctors, specialists, researchers, and outside agencies all working for the good of the patients and the overall improvement of the practices in medicine. The same is true at our school. All of our students, teachers, professional partners, specialists and pre-service teachers work collaboratively to reach the needs of our economically-challenged and mostly immigrant population, as well as to improve our overall educational practices. Last year, working with the PDS and community school partners we were able to develop and execute powerful literacy workshops and interventions for the families of our struggling readers and writers. Coordinated by Manhattanville College, SER of Westchester (our social services partner) and I, tapped into each other’s expertise. As the teacher, I knew the students, their families and the demands of the curriculum. Our PDS partner was able to address pedagogy and provide immediate tutoring opportunities outside of school for these students, and our social services partner provided further workshop opportunities to teach the parents (most of the new to the U.S.) about the cultural norms of education in the United States. From the outside looking in, this is an intricate and intense setting.

The learning curve is steep for a new teacher in general, but at Edison the rewards are immense, benefitting teachers, students, families, the community and the educational profession as a whole. I was trained as a student teacher at Edison through their PDS partnership with Manhattanville College. Because I have never worked in any other environment, I don’t know any other way but to work in this highly collaborative and deeply reflective manner. The expectations are high but this working model is producing a crop of teachers with a uniquely valuable skill set that sets them apart from almost any other beginning teacher.

Although we’ve worked together for several years, we continue to be amazed by the dynamic evolution of our Community School/PDS partnership as it responds to the needs of our community and the current trends in education. We believe the Community School/PDS takes whole child education to a new level.

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