Noble Street Charter School, which had two new campuses approved at yesterday’s board meeting, could soon begin working with an alternative certification program that targets charter school teachers.

The Relay Graduate School of Education, an outgrowth of a program previously at New York City’s Hunter College, has applied for operating approval and degree-granting approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. If that agency and the Illinois State Board of Education approve Relay, it could potentially open its doors to serve as many as 50 students as soon as the fall.

Relay awards two-year master’s degrees to working teachers. It is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Tuition is $35,000 for the two-year program, according to Relay’s website. 

At a time when schools of education face criticism for their emphasis on educational theory, Relay’s program has been praised for its emphasis on hands-on practice. Instead of writing papers, teacher candidates turn in videotapes of themselves as they try out various instructional techniques in the classroom. “Relay is a groundbreaking model for preparing urban teachers and leaders.  It demands participants demonstrate excellence, (and) requires intensive training from the best clinicians…Chicago should be pleased they’re here,” University of Chicago Urban Education Institute Director Tim Knowles wrote in an email.

But its philosophy has been criticized by opponents of charter schools and alternative teacher certification programs. The application to open in Chicago has already drawn criticism from UIC College of Education Interim Dean Alfred Tatum, who said the program will be “an unhealthy political intrusion into Chicago’s landscape.”

A Relay representative said that Chicago is an “obvious” place for Relay to expand because of the demand for teachers and the support for new programs within the city’s education community.

Relay plans to work exclusively with Noble Street Charter School for its first several years in operation here. If approved by the state, the school would begin by preparing a small number of teachers, with an emphasis on recruiting graduates of Noble Street who have now graduated from college. Unlike in Relay’s other programs, they will begin as residents working with small groups of students before being placed in a full-time teaching position.

After that, the program could grow to include first-year teachers at other charter or neighborhood schools, much like the alternative certification programs Teach for America and Chicago Teaching Fellows.

Proof of effectiveness

Relay says that it only awards master’s degrees to teacher candidates who show, through test score data and student work samples, that they produce at least a year’s worth of academic growth in their students.

“Our education system has failed to keep pace as society has moved forward, creating an achievement gap that has grown from decade to decade,” Relay’s website states. “Fueling the crisis has been a nationwide failure by most university-based teacher education programs to prepare teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.”

Charter school operators KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools started the Teacher U alternative certification program in New York City in 2008, which was affiliated with Hunter College. When the program earned a license to operate independently in early 2011, it was renamed Relay Graduate School of Education.

Since then, the school has opened additional locations in Newark and New Orleans.

It isn’t clear yet how many first-year teachers would be involved, but a Relay representative said the number is expected to be small.

Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, called the partnership “a smart move” on Noble Street’s part.

“It is going to shake things up,” Radner said. “Incoming teachers will have a support structure. Their [training] will be job-embedded. They will be practicing and learning at the same time.”

Radner noted that, like Teach for America, the program could be a boon to teachers who were not education majors in college or are changing careers.

She also praised the residency model, where brand-new teaching recruits are not the sole or lead teacher in their classroom. It is a strategy also used by the Academy for Urban School Leadership teacher training program, Radner said.

This story has been updated with additional information about the structure of Relay’s program in Chicago.

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