Equipping Teachers With the Right Tools
Tommie Myles ’03 was trying to fix his refrigerator, but nothing was working.
Then his dad told him he needed a needle-nose pliers, a tool Myles had never heard of. But he went to the hardware store and purchased the pliers. Sure enough, it did the trick.
“It was the exact tool for the job,” recalls Myles, the executive director of Woodlands School, a K-8 charter school with two campuses in Milwaukee.
It’s a memory Myles returns to when discussing education, particularly when it comes to ensuring teachers and school leaders have the right tools to best serve their students.
“Many teachers don’t have a lot in their tool box. All they have is a hammer, and they try to fix everything with a hammer, and it just doesn’t work,” he says.
In Milwaukee and elsewhere, today’s teachers require an ever-growing set of skills as they grapple with big questions. For instance: How do they move the needle on student achievement and close gaps? How do they bridge racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic and political divides to put students first? In an environment where resources are stretched, how can they help each student achieve success?
There’s no question the stakes are high.
“The purpose of education is to create possibilities,” says Chris Her-Xiong ’02, founder and executive director of the Hmong American Peace Academy. “Failure’s not an option.”
That’s why Alverno turned to community and school leaders for input on how to best expand its ability to prepare teachers to enter urban and other high-need schools. The resulting strategic initiatives build on Alverno’s long history of training future educators who are ready to make a difference.
“If we can successfully prepare students to teach in challenging environments, they will be able to teach anywhere,” says Patricia Luebke, dean of Alverno’s School of Professional Studies, which includes the College’s Education and Business programs.
Alverno will continue to emphasize hands-on experience for its students, more than tripling the number of hours that undergraduates spend in the field. This, along with new curriculum and programs, will better prepare future teachers for the reality of working in an urban or high-need environment.
“Until you do it, it’s not something you can put in a textbook or theorize,” says Elizabeth Lingen ’98 ’15, assistant head of school at St. Joan Antida High School.
Closing the gaps
Achievement gaps abound in Milwaukee and throughout the state. In 2015, for instance, federal data show that Wisconsin had the largest graduation-rate gap between Black and white students in the country, with 64.1 percent of Black students graduating high school compared with 92.9 percent of white students and 77.5 percent of Hispanic students.
And a 2016 report commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation found that although Latinos have made great strides in Milwaukee, “Latino-white disparities in educational attainment remain deeply entrenched.” School leaders say the way to start bridging the gaps is to focus not on equal educational experiences but on equitable ones.
“Equity is ensuring that students — regardless of their background, neighborhood, ZIP code or socioeconomic status — are able to receive an education that is excellent and grants them access to future opportunities to build power,” says Kyra VandeBunte ’16, principal at Carmen High School of Science and Technology’s northwest campus.
Equity is “never lowering the bar,” adds Abby Andrietsch, executive director of Schools That Can Milwaukee and an Alverno trustee. “It’s having a high bar and hopes for all of our students but recognizing that it takes different resources and work to support all of our students getting there.”
Based on feedback from community educators, Alverno’s Education majors will spend even more time practicing how to lead a multicultural classroom. They’ll learn how to meet the needs of students who bring different backgrounds and learning styles to the table. That includes new licensure options allowing future teachers to specialize in high-need areas such as special education and teaching English language learners. And new curriculum focused on trauma-informed education is in development.
“There is a bond between the social and emotional learning and the academic learning that has to happen in every classroom,” says Ruth Maegli, chief academic officer of Milwaukee Public Schools. “We have to build those relationships between teachers and students so it can be a place of learning.”
Public schools across the state “are facing historic teacher shortages,” reports the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Between 2008 and 2014, Wisconsin lost 1,478 public school teachers, or 2.4 percent, according to the Public Policy Forum, a Milwaukee research firm. Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in public schools grew by 2,269 students, or 0.3 percent.
“There is a deep need for people to go into education,” Maegli says.
Political battles, reduced salaries and benefits, and ever-changing legal requirements are among the deterrents would-be teachers face, not to mention the oft-discussed challenges — real and perceived — of teaching in an urban or high-need school.
In the face of such shortages, more professionals who weren’t trained as teachers are entering the classroom. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of emergency licenses or permits issued by the Wisconsin DPI has grown to 2,659 from 1,126.
To help address the shortage, and to meet students’ needs, Alverno launched a new program that allows paraprofessionals to become licensed teachers and earn a bachelor’s degree. The first cohort of students started class this fall, and Luebke says interest was so strong that she expects another cohort will begin in the spring.
“Alverno is creating a pathway for educational assistants and paraprofessionals to become certified teachers. That’s a huge need,” says Andrietsch. “It also will help us continue to grow and build the diversity of our teaching corps in Milwaukee. There are some really incredible educational assistants who haven’t necessarily had that pathway to move forward.”
As many profess the need for more diverse faculty, Alverno is considering a program for African-American men who want to be teachers. “It’s really helpful for our kids to see people who look like them demonstrate that this is what a pathway to future success looks like,” says VandeBunte.
Partnering for change
To drive change, partnerships are key. That’s why Alverno is working with community leaders, schools and other partners across the region to expand its Education offerings and ensure that Alverno graduates continue making a difference in the classroom. For instance, Alverno’s existing partnership with Schools That Can Milwaukee has developed 44 current and aspiring principals in schools across the city.
“I have a lot of optimism and hope for what’s possible,” Andrietsch says of K-12 education in Milwaukee. “We have incredible leaders in all types of schools who are collaborating and coming together to better serve kids across the city.”
This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Alverno Magazine.