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Program In Kansas City Aims To Breed 'Social Activists' As Teachers

Kyle Palmer

On a recent summer morning, a dozen would-be teachers gathered outside Kansas City's Juvenile Justice Center, preparing to go inside. 

"This is a lockdown facility," cautioned Uzziel Pecina, the professor leading what was a rather unusual field trip. "Are there any questions before we enter?" 

Pecina teaches what he calls a "summer community immersion" course at University of Missouri-Kansas City's Institute for Urban Education. 

Many of the students joining him on this excursion, like Jared Bell, were about to enter their fourth and final year in what is one of the most rigorous and intensive teacher prep programs in the Kansas City metro, designed to prepare teachers to work in some of the region's most underserved schools. 

"I feel like we're social activists, going into the urban core to teach," Bell said, when asked why he and his classmates need to come to places like the Juvenile Justice Center. "I didn't even know this place was here before today. It opens my eyes to what my students face." 

This visit was just one of a variety of so-called "community experiences" the students in Pecina's course got over the summer. They also spent multiple days per week at "community placements" — summer school classes, foster homes, youth shelters — working with kids. 

Credit Julia Szabo / KCUR
Jared Bell, originally from St. Louis, says he was inspired to teach by two African-American male teachers he had in high school.

Pecina said he wants his teacher trainees to know all aspects of the communities from which their future students may come. That includes places like the Juvenile Justice Center. 

"Unfortunately, sometimes our students wind up here. We don't want them to, but we also need to know that it is a reality," Pecina said. "It can happen, and we as teachers can help when it does." 

An Education Beyond The Classroom

Going beyond the classroom, into the community is rare for a teacher prep program. Many prospective teachers in university programs spend the brunt of their coursework in college classes, learning theory and educational history. 

This can create problems once those would-be teachers get a job and start leading their own students. 

"The first year is tough, and they might think that everything they're experiencing in their first year is because something they've done is wrong or some method they don't understand," said Heidi Hallman, a professor of education at the University of Kansas. 

Hallman says teachers need a broader understanding of the "community norms" of where their students come from, which can be a particular challenge for teachers — especially white, middle class teachers —going into an urban environment. 

Recently, Hallman has conducted research with prospective teachers at KU that attempts to look at the effect of what she calls "community fieldwork" on young teachers' mindsets. 

What she has found at KU matches Pecina's reasoning for taking his students to the Juvenile Justice Center. Would-be teachers who worked with students outside of a typical school setting — such as at a community center or in an after-school program — were better able to build relationships with students later in their teaching. 

"They see that learning happens all the time beyond the classroom," Hallman says. "It also allows them to develop trust with students more readily. They talk to students differently. They are better at building relationships."

Overall, Hallman concludes, teachers who are exposed to the wider communities of their students outside of school are better able to build longer, more sustainable careers. 

An eight-year commitment

UMKC's Institute for Urban Education began in 2005 with the express purpose of building up a pool of teachers who would want to teach in Kansas City's "urban core." 

"We wanted to take students directly from high school and get their foot in the water to see what teaching was all about," says Ed Underwood, the director of the institute since it started a decade ago. 

Prospective teachers at the institute are asked to make an unusually long commitment to teaching. They are in the program for all four years of their undergraduate time at UMKC and begin working in schools in their freshman year. By their senior year, they  take on a full-time co-teaching commitment with a partner school for the entire academic year. 

Credit Julia Szabo / KCUR
La'Sheka Nicholson: 'Lord have mercy, we were in the classroom from day one (in UMKC's Institute for Urban Education).'

"It definitely trained me to decide if this was for me or not," said La'Sheka Nicholson, who graduated from the institute in May and is now beginning her first year teaching at Northeast Middle School in Kansas City. 

"We were in the classroom from day one. They want to make sure you know what you're walking into." 

After graduation, the institute asks its graduates to commit to four years of teaching in a school in either the Kansas City, Hickman Mills, or Kansas City, Kansas district. 

Since 2005, the institute has graduated more than 80 teachers to teach in the Kansas City area. More than 90 percent of those graduates are still teaching today, a rate of retention that far surpasses many urban schools in the region, some of which have year-to-year teacher turnover of more than 50 percent.

'Going into battle'

After emerging from the Juvenile Justice Center, Uzziel Pecina's students seemed appreciative of the experience. 

Jared Bell, for one, said some of the young men he met inside reminded him of himself when he was a teenager. 

"I very well could have ended up in a place like this," he said. "But I didn't."

He credited two African-American male teachers for showing him what was possible. 

"I had never seen someone like me in a position like that before," he said. "And that is what I want to be now." 

It is that type of vividly personal reaction institute officials want their would-be teachers to have in community experience like this one. 

This fall, Bell is starting his final year in the institute and will be in a full-time co-teaching role at a local high school. 

"I feel like we're going into battle, into the urban core," he said. "I feel like we're trying to bring this new wave of teaching." 

This story is part of KCUR's 'Teaching It Forward' project, which looks deeply at the changing nature of the teaching profession in the Kansas City metro. 

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