The University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools are creating a partnership aimed at training the next generation of teachers to work in the city’s classrooms.
The college announced plans on Thursday to launch its Urban Education Teacher Prep program by fall of 2019 under new dean Kandi Hill-Clarke, a Memphis native recruited home this year from Indiana State University, where she was also dean.
Hill-Clarke is designing the track as part of the university’s new River City Partnership with Shelby County Schools. The goal is to work together to strengthen the pipeline of skilled new teachers who are culturally aware of the needs of urban students. As part of the program, teacher candidates will receive classroom experience and mentoring in some of the district’s highest-needs schools.
“The University of Memphis recognizes the challenges facing the Shelby County region can be addressed through a stronger education system and that must be cultivated from the ground up,” said M. David Rudd, the university’s president. “By collaborating with the Shelby County public school system, we can work together to better train and prepare future educators who are eager to continue to invest in the Memphis community and teach the next generation of students.”
With the partnership, the university is stepping up to the plate to fill the chronic need for more teachers in Memphis. At the start of this school year, for instance, Shelby County Schools was short of at least 175 new teachers, especially in subjects like math, science, and special education.
But it also has the potential to energize the university’s College of Education where, mirroring a national trend, the number of graduates has decreased by about half since 2013.
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This isn’t the first time the university has tried to create an urban teaching track. Three years ago, university leaders attempted to partner with New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education to offer an alternative licensure program that would send its candidates into some of the city’s most challenging classrooms. But the deal fell apart when faculty protested that its own College of Education wasn’t part of those negotiations.
Hill-Clarke says the River City Partnership turns the page on that chapter.
“This initiative is personal and professional for me,” said Hill-Clarke, an alumna of the University of Memphis. “I need and want to see the district, community, and university succeed and do well. … We asked the school district what they needed, and this program is an answer. But it’s also a win for us.”
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he hopes the retooled program can produce and equip educators to handle the challenges of a district in which 60 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
“When speaking with the new dean, we talked about how the university was not producing a high number of teachers who were going into our high-needs schools,” Hopson said. “We got to a point where we figured out, what if we reorient the training and the experience and cultural competencies necessary for them to be successful?”
University officials said they need $7.5 million more to launch the program and sustain it for five years. Chief development officer Bobby Prince has been in talks with private funders, and he is optimistic the program could launch with at least 25 students.
In the meantime, the partnership includes several other components that will roll out in 2018. This summer, the university will host a week-long Summer Bridge Program for Shelby County high schoolers interested in learning about urban teaching.
And this fall, a recruitment program called High School Teacher Cadets will begin in three Memphis high schools, which are yet to be selected. Hill-Clarke said Teacher Cadets will mirror Future Teachers of America, a national program that mentors high school students interested in the teaching profession.
“We see this as mutually beneficial,” she said. “The hope is to instill an early love and interest in Memphis high schoolers for teaching, and then connect them to us as a place to further their education after they graduate.”
Another goal is to attract students of color to train in the city’s under-resourced high schools in the hopes that they will return to teach in those same schools.
The River City Partnership is launching during a season of increased scrutiny of the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee. Not a single public university in the state scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. The University of Memphis scored a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. The state is to release new report cards in mid-February.
In recent years, Memphis has seen the birth of several non-traditional teacher prep programs such as Memphis Teacher Residency and Relay, which launched in 2015 without the University of Memphis. But Rudd says only the University of Memphis, with a student body of 22,000, has the resources and scale to make a dent in the local teacher shortage.
“I see this as a recognition of the role that an urban public research university should play in this city,” Rudd said. “Undeniably, education is one of the top challenges … in Memphis. I don’t think we can address the problem without the university’s involvement.”