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U46 plans to team up more coaches with teachers

Sixth-grade student Cristobal Nambo prepares ask questiThursday during class Channing Elementary School Elgin. | Photos by Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

Sixth-grade student Cristobal Nambo prepares to ask a question Thursday during a class at Channing Elementary School in Elgin. | Photos by Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 15, 2012 8:06AM

ELGIN — The New York Giants couldn’t have won the Super Bowl without Tom Coughlin. That’s the team’s coach, who has led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins in four years.

Now School District U46 is hoping coaches also can help struggling teachers within the second-largest school district in Illinois.

U46 and Elgin Teachers Association officials presented the first stage of a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program at last week’s U46 Board of Education meeting.

“We have a shared goal with the ETA to make sure every student has an effective teacher, and PAR is really to support those struggling teachers,” U46 Superintendent Jose Torres said.

That’s because “One of the things we know is the most important factor in student achievement is the teacher in the classroom,” said Andrea Erickson, U46 coordinator of Teacher Effectiveness Initiatives.

The PAR program — developed in collaboration with the National Education Association Foundation Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning — will pair struggling third- and fourth-year teachers with peer consulting teachers, starting next school year. Each peer consultant not only will coach those teachers but also evaluate them and help their principals determine whether to dismiss them.

U46 is one of 11 school districts nationwide invited by the NEA Foundation to be part of the Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning’s first cohort, according to the foundation’s website. Each of those districts has identified issues most critical to their students and has committed to work together with their teachers unions to improve the quality of education for their students.

Fitting goals

The Elgin district chose the PAR program because that’s a plan that fits into both U46’s and its teachers union’s goals, ETA President Kathryn Castle said. And it lends itself to new teacher evaluation requirements under Illinois Senate Bill 7, passed in June, she said.

The education reform bill requires principals to evaluate teachers as “unsatisfactory,” “needs improvement,” “proficient” and “excellent,” according to Erickson. Those evaluations can be used to determine a teacher’s tenure — as well as dismissal.

Evaluations for the current school year will be completed March 15, and teachers with a “needs improvement” rating will be required to complete some professional development at the discretion of those teachers and their principals, Erickson said. One such professional development program they can choose is PAR.

“We think of it in terms of continuous improvement and growth for teachers — and for teachers who don’t continuously improve, opportunities to move on,” Torres said.

The idea of coaching, at least, isn’t entirely new to the Elgin school district, according to Tony Sanders, U46 chief of staff.

“We’ve had for years a very successful Teacher Mentor Program. We give this support to most of our teachers who are new to teaching or to our district,” Sanders said.

Mentor program

Juanita Spano reviewed several strategies for reading with the 17 English Language Learner (ELL) students in her sixth-grade classroom Thursday at Channing Memorial Elementary School, 63 S. Channing St., Elgin.

Among them were using text features, such as pictures and sidebars; visualizing what’s being described in the book; and differentiating between important ideas and details. Reading the summary on the book was a new strategy — they just had discussed it the day before, Spano reminded her class.

“Yesenia, do you like to read the summary?” she asked.

Yesenia Porras said sometimes, if it was about something she likes, but, “if it’s action or violent, I don’t like it.” She could tell if she was going to like it by the picture on the cover of the book, she added.

That’s why the summary is there, Spano said — to see if you’re going to like the book or not.

“Can you imagine if a book didn’t have a summary — if everybody did what Yesenia did and judged a book by its cover?” she teased.

The first-year teacher turned the class loose on the books they already had chosen, with instructions to write about how they had used one of those strategies while reading afterward.

Reading is a subject she is comfortable teaching because “I know how essential it is,” she said.

But when it comes to science, having done her student teaching in kindergarten, Spano said, “I have no experience with it. I would have just opted out and taught social science.”

Enter Aaron Mendoza, Spano’s teacher mentor.

When Spano’s class headed to lunch, Mendoza asked her how an experiment testing the sugar content of different cereals he’d modeled for her class was coming. He offered encouragement when she said she was having a hard time getting students to bring in cereals to test.

They discussed some of her concerns about specific students and how she might connect with school social workers. Their interactions aren’t always about academics, both noted: In a district as large as U46, sometimes first-year teachers just need someone to act as a resource, answering questions as simple as how to access students’ progress reports.

“Just seeing him and talking to someone more experienced — that’s beneficial to me,” Spano said.

“It’s not just Aaron coming in and saying, ‘This is what you’re doing wrong.’ It’s more like a conversation. I feel comfortable enough to say, ‘I don’t have a lot of experience with this.’ ”

Mendoza spent eight years teaching in U46 before becoming a full-time mentor this school year to 15 ELL teachers in classrooms from kindergarten to high school at nine or 10 different schools. He usually visits each once a week, he said.

Full-time mentors work with multiple ELL and special education teachers in the district, U46’s Erickson said. First- and second-year teachers in the regular education program each receive a one-on-one mentor, who also is a full-time teacher. All mentor positions are three-year commitments, she said.

Moving forward

The Elgin school district started its Teacher Mentor Program 13 years ago, according to Erickson.

In that time, the ETA’s Castle said, “We’ve learned quite a bit from those teacher mentors. Some of the work (with PAR) will be similar, but there will be some differences.”

For one, Erickson said, the Teacher Mentor Program is about growth, not ratings. And in the current program, there’s a “firewall” between the mentor and principal, she said. In PAR, the peer consulting teacher will report his or her interactions with a teacher to his or her principal, she said.

U46 also has researched at several school districts with model PAR programs, including those in Minneapolis: Toledo and Cincinnati; San Juan; Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y.; and Montgomery County, Md., Torres said at last week’s board meeting.

Some elements of the successful programs in those districts include furnishing support for early career teachers, implementing improvement strategies for struggling teachers to become more effective, and identifying professional learning opportunities for already-effective teachers to become highly effective, according to the superintendent. Those programs also include a process for ineffective teachers to be recommended for dismissal, he said.

U46 eventually plans to expand PAR to include any teacher who wants coaching, Castle said. Meantime, it’s starting with those third- and fourth-year teachers who ask for coaching or get a state rating of “needs improvement,” as well second-year teachers who came to Elgin from a different district and only were part of the Teacher Mentor Program for one year.

It will select its eight-member PAR panel by the time this year’s evaluations are finished, according to the ETA president. That panel then will choose and pair participating teachers with at least one peer consultant — similar to a full-time mentor in the Teacher Mentor Program — by end of the school year.

At last week’s meeting, board member Amy Kerber pointed out teachers “might think they’re assuming a huge risk in self-selecting for peer support.”

But Castle said teachers who have benefited from the teacher mentoring program hopefully will realize the benefits of PAR.

“There are a lot of reasons you’d want to do this. Induction matters, and it’s important. Maybe they just need that one more year of support. It seems a shame to not give it to them,” she said.

“We thought this was the best way to spend the resources we might have.”

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