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At Roosevelt High School, a quiet cultural revolution is taking hold

An arrangement with the University of Minnesota to create co-teacher partnerships (of veterans and novices) is creating “a real buzz” and getting real results.

Editor’s note: In the weeks before school let out, MinnPost had the chance to spend time in Minneapolis Public Schools where a quiet sea change in the craft of teaching is taking place. 

The first story to result from those visits concerned a change in the district’s contract with its teachers that has allowed it to be more competitive in seeking out the best candidatesSome of the teachers being snapped up as a part of the hiring process were participants in the pilot of a year-long teaching residency partnership between MPS and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities College of Education and Human Development.

Leaders at both the district and university could not be more enthusiastic about the program’s initial successes. MinnPost spent one of the last days of the school year at Roosevelt High School, watching its co-teachers in action.

When Michael Bradley took over as principal at Roosevelt High School three years ago, he inherited a culture rife with contradictions. There was affection and dedication, but there was also complacency.

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Teachers weren’t trying to get out, but they weren’t bidding to get in, either. Like Bradley, who taught at Roosevelt in the late 1990s, many fell in love with the school even as they winced at indications it was failing its student body, the most diverse and impoverished on the city’s south side.

In part because of a reputation that hadn’t had much luster for three decades, enrollment was declining. And the amount of remedial coursework on the schedule was increasing.

“There was a lot of backslapping in the building about, ‘We’re doing the good work,’ and ‘Oh, woe is us,’” Bradley recalled. “Clearly we needed two things: To address instructional practices in every classroom; and we probably needed some clout to impact other areas of the community.”

Enter Jehanne Beaton, another veteran who had loved the school’s teacher corps yet left it for other work. As part of her work as a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, Beaton was to oversee social studies student teaching placements.

At the same time, the U of M was trying to figure out how to give its post-baccalaureate candidates — students with bachelor’s degrees who were spending a single graduate year earning a teaching license — more than a few weeks’ practical classroom experience. And to get them experience in the schools with the biggest opportunity gaps.

Consequently, Beaton wanted to place students at Roosevelt, which — to put it mildly — was not the kind of school where teachers traditionally were trained. Nor were its teachers, as a rule, eager to add one more task — coaching a newcomer — to already full plates.

The last couple of years have been, to use Bradley’s turn of phrase, “muddy and messy.” But the two have led a quiet revolution in the school’s teaching culture, asking classroom teachers to work alongside specialists in English-language and special-ed and with student teachers.

The result: Bradley and Beaton have very intentionally — and successfully — “de-privatized” Roosevelt’s classrooms. Today veteran and new teachers alike are competing to work there. In fact, the change has been so successful it will be copied at 10 other Minneapolis Public Schools programs in the fall.

Well-oiled team

Beaton has been the linchpin of the experiment’s success. A known quantity to both Roosevelt’s faculty and the U of M’s teaching school leaders, her marching orders were pretty simple. Like a dual agent, she was to ensure that each institution’s priorities were adhered to.

“The U said, ‘Whatever you need to do to support this partnership, that’s your job,’” said Beaton.

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Two years ago she approached the high school’s social studies teachers and asked them to take on students — to become cooperating teachers, in the profession’s parlance. She convinced four to take on six teacher candidates.

“I went to the teachers and said, ‘I think you should have a student teacher and I will support you and I will find you a good one,’” Beaton told them. “They knew me as a classroom teacher here. They knew I knew what it is to teach at Roosevelt.”

Two of the student teachers were put in unique, year-long classroom placements. Traditionally, candidates student teach for just a few weeks. In part because classroom skills get short shrift, few have done great work their first years on the job.

Aware of this and concerned about its students’ experiences, the U of M had been working to ensure that each of its post-baccalaureate candidates had more meaningful preparation for taking over a classroom.

“This is not the U dropping off candidates and saying ‘good luck,’” said Beaton. Rather the college came to the high school, taking over a Roosevelt classroom for a weekly social studies methods course for the candidates. The university also collected focus group data on the veteran teachers experiences being mentors and met with school staff to discuss creating a classroom management course.

Bradley and Beaton’s goal for the yearlong residency was for the teachers to appear to all as a well-oiled team. Students should not be able to tell who was the “real” teacher and who the novice. They knew this model required planning and trust, lots and lots of trust.

The cooperating teachers needed to have a high-expectations mindset — tough in an environment where dedication and complacency about poverty and other external barriers to student success coexisted.

“We wanted exactly the pedagogy the U is planning,” said Beaton. “As simple as that statement is, it was hard to find.”

Rocky first year

The first year was rocky. One of the students did not complete it, and the university had concerns about one of the cooperating teachers. Yet two of the student teachers impressed school leaders as so well-prepared that the district immediately hired them.

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The hires garnered attention internally, too. Teachers started asking what was so successful in those classrooms. For the second year, 45 asked to be cooperating teachers.

Initially Beaton did have to talk veterans into taking on students. But she also had to ensure that the classroom teachers were on their game and would be modeling the best practices the U of M wanted its students to absorb.

“If you have to explain what you’re doing, if you have to unpack it, you have to have it down,” she explained. “So you have to become more effective if you want a student teacher. It’s become a prestigious thing.”

As Beaton and Bradley hoped, it’s impossible to tell which teacher in any given Roosevelt classroom is the teacher of record. In fact the co-teaching model, with its greater individualized instruction for students and increased feedback for teachers, has spread to other programs.

Roosevelt has placed special education and English language learner teachers in mainstream classrooms for partial days. Predictably, students are benefiting from the more specialized attention. But mainline classroom teachers report picking up new tools that they employ throughout the day.

Co-teacher is my pilot

Jennifer Eik is one of the teacher candidates hired by Roosevelt at the end of the pilot’s first year. She looked forward to seventh hour last year, when she had a co-teacher.

“We debrief about what we would do differently,” said Eik. Having the other person to reflect with is so important. Now I miss that support in my other classes with no co-teacher.”

The hardest part of her year as a student teacher might have been the most valuable, according to the school’s leaders. As a part of the program’s professional learning communities component, she and other teachers were asked to look in great depth at their cultural identities.

“We did a lot of identity work and at first, I was resistant. … Because I just felt like, ‘what’s the relevance?’ and ‘this isn’t what I signed up for,’” Eik said in evaluation materials. “We did a lot of work on how we view the world, what biases we walked into the classroom with and how that affects our instruction.

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“Now, looking back on the year,” she added, “I have to say it was one of the most positively influential years of my life.”

The second year the pilot went from six student-teacher placements to 25. A university math-methods teacher was in the building, teaching a 7 a.m. course for all of the math candidates before they headed to their classrooms.

“This year we had four open math positions,” said Bradley. “We filled three of the four with new post-baccalaureate teachers. They know our mission, our vision and they want to be here.”

Diversifying the corps

Because the U of M has put a priority on diversifying, the school’s teacher corps is diversifying, moving from 95 percent white to 83 percent during the pilot.

And the number of students listing Roosevelt as their first choice for high school has risen from zero three years ago to 67 last year and 230 this year.

Insiders will recognize this as amazing, but even more amazing is the change that filtered out into the culture of the veteran teachers, according to the principal.

“Two years ago we were begging for teachers,” said Bradley. “I think this program has created a real buzz about wanting to be here.”

For next fall, the school needed to fill 16 full or partial positions. Nine were filled in the district’s first round of interviewing, four from the U of M program. The others were teachers with enough seniority to work elsewhere who chose to approach Roosevelt.

These are perhaps more reliable indicators about the shift underway at the school and standardized test scores. Because Minnesota has changed math, language arts and other assessments in recent years, apples-to-apples comparisons are dicey.

Potential game changer

Overall, though, Bradley is thrilled. If the other 10 MPS schools entering partnerships with the U of M come anywhere close, he predicts the co-teaching model could prove a game changer.

Indeed, Lucy Laney Community School, on the city’s north side, has had initial promising results with its own co-teaching experiment. MPS last year committed to putting two teachers in its most challenged classrooms. And the U of M is working on partnerships including year-long residencies elsewhere.

The more adults who interact with students every day, the better, said Bradley. But the secret at the center of it all in his view is encouraging teachers to own their practices.

“I want all teachers to be teacher-leaders,” said Bradley. “We go into each others’ classrooms to develop collective practice that is better than elsewhere.”

“It all comes down to culture,” he added. “Is your school a community?”