If you happen to visit Carolina Mendez’s kindergarten class at Goldrick Elementary School during “choice” time, you will notice her students choose to spend their free time “playing school.”
One student pretends to be Miss Mendez, the rest play her students, speaking to each other with the same polite language they hear from their adult teacher : “Excuse me … thank you … please raise your hand … may I have that?”
“Most of my students are Hispanic, and I’m Hispanic, so I feel like I am a role model for them,” said Mendez. “I have very high expectations for them. I feel like I can teach them anything. The sky is the limit!”
In another classroom at Goldrick, third-grade teacher Claudia Cardenas has one student who started the school year struggling to read at a first-grade level.
“She wanted to learn so much, and she was always asking questions,” Cardenas said of the student. “She came for help after school and during recess, and her mom came to school every other day to ask, ‘What can I do to help her?’”
By December, Cardenas proudly points out, that same student tested at the third-grade level in reading, gaining two grade levels in four months. “My students are so motivated, and I have a lot of parent support,” said Cardenas. “It makes learning marvelous.”
Many of these kinds of success stories at Goldrick are the result of the Urban Community Teacher Education (UCTE) program at the University of Colorado Denver, where both Mendez and Cardenas did their training. CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development (SEHD) has a rich 20-year history of closely partnering with local K-12 schools to prepare exceptional teachers.
Cindy Gutierrez, PhD, director of UCTE, still remembers her own undergraduate path to become a teacher.
“I was prepared in a traditional program,” she said. “When you went off that last semester to student teach, it was pretty much ‘Good luck. Go figure it out.’” Gutierrez’ first job, in an inner-city middle school, where half her class moved away every couple months, “changed my life.”
“I was suddenly in contact with students and families who were amazing, but their lives were unimaginable,” said Gutierrez. “Despite their circumstances, these students had the capacity to be brilliant, but they needed extra support. I didn’t have the preparation necessary to meet those needs.”
So Gutierrez became what she calls “a statistic,” leaving her first teaching job after just one year and moving to a less urban setting to teach. But the experience gnawed at her. When she realized that she liked working with new teachers, she continued her graduate work at CU Denver, finished her PhD and joined the SEHD staff.
Six years ago, she became the director of UCTE, a program designed to respond to a population of increasingly diverse students in Colorado, a state with one of the fastest growing child poverty rates in the country. With federal grant support, Gutierrez and an SEHD team brought in national experts in urban education to redesign the teacher preparation program.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What do highly effective urban teachers need to know and what do they do to help urban youth achieve at high levels?’” said Gutierrez.
The answers to those questions were both simple and complex. Clearly, urban teachers could not just learn to be effective within the four walls of their own classroom. They had to be knowledgeable about the community at large. They had to learn how to partner with families and build networks of support for their students. They had to be very well prepared for the realities of urban schools, prepared enough to stick with their career despite the challenges.
THE RIGHT STUFF
The ideal students for UCTE embrace cultural diversity. They have a passion for working with urban youth and an unyielding belief in the ability of urban students to succeed given the right supports. They are students like Carolina Mendez and Claudia Cardenas.
For Mendez, who came to the United States from Colombia when she was 13, teaching runs in the family. Her mother is a recently retired Denver Public Schools (DPS) teacher, who was named Mile High Teacher of the year in May 2012. “I have big shoes to fill,” said Mendez.
After high school, Mendez worked as a paraprofessional in DPS for two years at the same time she began her undergraduate work in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at CU Denver. Eventually, she became a full-time student, and after she completed her degree with a major in political science, she enrolled in UCTE.
Mendez is bilingual. Her language skills enable her to support her students in their native language while they learn English. “I talk to them in English, but I can also call them mijo or mija, and that makes them feel at home,” said Mendez.
Cardenas also comes from a long line of teachers—both her grandmothers were teachers in Mexico, and her older sister is also a teacher. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico to seek a better life and education for their children.
Cardenas was born in the United States but found school challenging because no one spoke English in her home, so it was difficult to become fluent and get help with homework. She watched as her parents came for parent-teacher conferences, unable to understand what the teacher was telling them.
“Every time I look at my students, I see myself in them,” said Cardenas. “I want to make a difference in their lives. I don’t want them to have to struggle the way I did.”
THE RIGHT PROGRAM
When she decided to become a teacher, Cardenas looked at a couple different urban teacher programs in Colorado. CU Denver’s program stood out.
“The advisors at CU Denver gave me more attention,” said Cardenas. “They made it easy to learn.”
Support and community are cornerstones of the program. There are approximately 250 students in the UCTE program, organized in small learning cohorts at the undergraduate and graduate levels. After one year of successful course work and student teaching, graduate students leave with a license. They can also continue in their course work and earn a master’s degree and advanced endorsements. Undergraduates who decide early enough that they are interested in the UCTE program can graduate in four years with a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license. Candidates can pursue teaching licenses in elementary education, secondary education or special education.
Teacher candidates in UCTE live the life of a teacher for a year. They spend the first half of their week in the university classroom learning how to teach. They spend the second half of the week in a university partner K-12 classroom, practicing what they have learned, with the support of practicing teachers and university faculty constantly coaching and giving them feedback. The following week, they are back in at the university, reviewing what they learned from their practice teaching.
“It’s a highly integrated approach that accelerates our candidates’ development, often resulting in them having the skills and confidence of second- and third-year teachers when they start their first job,” said Gutierrez.
The 25 schools hosting the UCTE program love having teacher candidates in their classrooms. “It really renews [the teachers’] own practice,” said Gutierrez. “They get to work with young excited teachers, they learn the latest research and we support the renewal of these schools.”
At the university, teacher candidates study with experienced faculty. In their K-12 classrooms, they learn from experienced teachers, like Juanita Nason, who supervised Mendez when she was practice-teaching at Goldrick.
“There are so many things she taught me that I will never forget,” said Mendez. “[She taught me] to always be prepared. Have a plan A and a plan B. She also taught me to remember that my students’ learning is my priority, and I should always have high expectations.”
But teacher candidates learn more than just the curriculum they will teach. They learn to partner in the development of their students’ lives. “You have to be able to understand the complexities in their lives without pitying or patronizing them,” said Gutierrez. “You have to uncover their uniqueness and cultural strengths to create learning opportunities that help them achieve strong educational outcomes.”
Gutierrez emphasizes that UCTE trains teachers to understand that they cannot do everything for their students. They will need to partner with families, connect with community programs and seek after-school programs to find the support these at-risk students need.
“When teachers come to the classroom with this lens, they no longer blame their students for lack of success,” said Gutierrez. “They will find a pathway.”
TEACHERS FOR LIFE
This time, neither Mendez nor Cardenas will be “a statistic,” leaving their school after just one year. Both envision a long career teaching.
“[The UCTE program] helped me see where students are coming from,” said Cardenas. “Learning how they live and knowing their culture helps me teach according to their needs.”
Mendez is already trying to create a new generation of teachers. “I tell my students I graduated from CU Denver. I show them pictures. I want them to know, they can do it too.”