By Valerie Wells
Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Teacher Education Pipeline cultivates educators specifically for urban communities. The students go through an extensive application process, and if accepted, they take redesigned courses to help them gain insight into the dynamics of urban students, families and schools.
In Rock Falls, Mariah Menchaca didn’t have any experience with schools in an urban setting.
“Coming from such a small town — about 9,000 people — I didn’t know anything about urban schools,” said Menchaca, who is part of the Teacher Education Pipeline’s STEP UP immersion fellowship in Decatur this month.
The Teacher Education Pipeline began in Chicago nine years ago. Efforts to expand to Decatur began in 2015, and this year is the first for the fellowship here.
The initiative cultivates educators specifically for urban communities. The students go through an extensive application process, and if accepted, they take redesigned courses to help them gain insight into the dynamics of urban students, families and schools.
They learn ways to meet the needs of students from a range of cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds and the value of community-based partnerships.
Once the students have graduated and are teaching, they have experienced mentors, and both attend professional development, with technology and financial supports.
A majority of teachers in the United States are white women, and the impetus behind the Pipeline is to give them the experience and knowledge to teach low-income and minority children in the inner city.
Five Illinois State University students who are studying to be teachers are living in Decatur in June with host families.
Teacher Pipeline director Shannon Mittleman said the students have a jam-packed, seven-days-a-week schedule.
This includes volunteer work with a community-based organization such as Old King’s Orchard Community Center or the Boys & Girls Club. They also hear from evening speakers who focus on an area important to urban schools such astrauma-informed classrooms, instructional strategies or classroom management and meet with Illinois State graduates who are teachers in Decatur.
“What we’re doing here is the fellowship, and we also have student teaching, and the induction/mentoring program,” Mittleman said. “They take public transportation, too. This 8 a.m. class? They have to leave their house at 6:45 in the morning to take public transportation.”
The students don’t finish until 9 p.m. It truly is immersion, but the idea, Mittleman said, is to help them make connections with the community and feel invested in it.
“It’s kind of like an education boot camp,” she said. “We want them to get as immersive an experience as possible.”
One of the things the students are working on is how to inform Decatur’s public school teachers about the community-based organizations that could provide educational resources, Mittleman said.
The students are not just learning to teach; they’re learning to be active members of the community. She also connects them with Decatur teachers who are Illinois State graduates.
Jessica Piske of Naperville knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a small girl. She thought she wanted to teach math until she was in high school.
At her school, she said, regular education students had the opportunity to take physical education alongside students with disabilities who required an adaptive class. The students who had no disabilities helped the students who did. That led her to volunteer with Special Olympics and along the way, she realized that she wanted to teach special education.
Education majors at Illinois State spend three semesters in clinical settings, Piske said, and by the time they graduate, have about 1,000 hours of classroom experience, whereas the state of Illinois requires only 100.
With that experience, plus the Teacher Pipeline experiences, Piske said she will feel completely ready to teach when she gets that first job, and she hopes to teach in Decatur.
“Last fall, I didn’t know about Decatur at all,” Piske said. “I was placed here (for the fall clinical experience), so I did a lot of research, and Shannon connects to the ISU students who are placed in Decatur for field-based student teaching and reaches out to them and gives them more information.
“She’s really a huge part in getting teachers to know more about Decatur and live here while they’re student teaching.”
Mittleman took Piske to several of Decatur’s schools, showed her apartment options and told her about STEP UP at the same time.
“I was taking a class at the time that was really homing in on the idea of how community affects development of students and their learning, and I realized that working in Decatur over the summer, before I’m in Decatur (longer term) was going to be a great experience,” Piske said. “I knew what I was going into and resources and had a feel for the community.”
The program doesn’t require the students to take jobs in the community after graduation, Mittleman said, but the hope is that the connections they’ve made will make them want to do that.
“Students have met more people and know more about what’s going on in Decatur than many of our teachers,” Mittleman said.