First Cohort of Community-based Rockford Teachers to Graduate
By Robert Schroeder
The City of Rockford, west of Chicago, is in a struggle to transform itself.
Once an all-American manufacturing town, the bustling factories of the second half of the 20th century are now deserted and eerily quiet, leaving in their wake a vacuum of employment and income opportunities. Fast forward to 2009, when unemployment peaked at more than 16 percent, high school graduation rates plummeted below 50 percent, and the city's percentage of college graduates dropped to 19 percent, well below national average.
"I don't expect some magic wand in Washington or Springfield to solve all our problems," said Mayor Lawrence Morrissey in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "But if we want to produce excellent people, we need an excellent place."
National Louis University and a consortium of community organizations led by Grow Your Own Illinois are leading efforts to invigorate Rockford Public Schools. Grow Your Own Illinois (GYO), an organization that recruits non-traditional candidates for teaching degrees and placement in community schools, will graduate its first cohort of middle school science teachers from National Louis University this spring.
"It's really important [for a teacher] that you know what kind of community you are dealing with, and you know some of the ins and outs of the community," said Deborah O'Connor, assistant professor in the National College of Education. "Instead of coming and not knowing and making judgments about something like poverty, they are living in that community."
The consortium, bringing together National Louis University, Rock Valley Community College and the Rockford School District along with GYO started in 2006. Candidates attend class at Rock Valley, taught by National Louis faculty. Tuition funding comes from GYO scholarships as well as federal grants. GYO stipulates candidates must seek endorsements in middle school math, science, bilingual or ESL.
O'Connor says the first cohort has faced many of the hurdles typical of non-traditional students. Many are balancing the responsibilities of families or are single parents, as well as part-time employment. Uniquely, many are the first in their family to attend college.
With a central community focus, placing candidates in student teaching roles proved a challenge for National Louis faculty. O'Connor says faculty were sensitive to the fact that candidates needed to be placed in a variety of school settings, in particular away from their own neighborhoods, where they may have lived their entire lives.
"That perpetuates some of the thinking," O'Connor said. "We wanted them to be more critical thinkers and see multiple perspectives."
While the unemployment picture in Rockford remains bleak, Rockford Public Schools is currently changing its science requirements for its high schools, opening up new positions for added science emphasis in middle schools. All candidates appear likely to be employed by the district for the '12-'13 school year.
That means the next cohort of GYO teacher candidates is gearing up, again with a focus on middle school science endorsement. O'Connor says the focus from National Louis will cover ensuring a successful student services experience and providing all support services needed for a non-traditional student population.