National Teachers Academy Credit: photo by Christine Oliva

In just about every regard, the National Teachers Academy (NTA) is a gold-plated site for student teaching.

It is housed in a gleaming, new $47 million facility that boasts computerized blackboards, two libraries and classrooms with two-way glass that allows student teachers to observe without disrupting class.

All of its teachers have or are working toward certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—the profession’s highest credential.

And its academic program models the best instructional practices, integrates student teachers into the entire school community—not just one classroom—and offers such extras as reflective study groups and videotapes of lessons.

At NTA, Chicago Public Schools officials have taken the standard student teacher training model and punched it up. One of the district’s goals is to improve the quality of classroom instruction, and it sees NTA as the gateway for making that happen.

“One of our goals at NTA is to grow new teachers and transplant them into Chicago public schools,” says Professional Development Officer Albert Bertani, who oversees the district’s teacher and principal training programs. Eventually, the school will also provide in-service training for experienced teachers, he says.

The hallmark of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1999 re-election campaign, NTA opened its doors to students and student teachers last September, ending years of false starts. Located on the Near South Side, close to encroaching gentrification, it serves 620 students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. For the most part, the children come from two nearby public housing developments—Dearborn Homes and Harold Ickes Homes.

The teacher-training program enrolled 10 student teachers during the first semester and 15 during second semester. Another 66 education students visited NTA to satisfy a classroom observation requirement that must be completed before student teaching. The school can accommodate 34 student teachers each semester.

Gaining traction

At the beginning, the National Teachers Academy was meant to be a partnership between CPS, the Golden Apple Foundation and the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, the groups later withdrew, complaining that details for the new school from CPS were unclear.

Later, NTA endured several program changes and leadership shifts, making outside educators skeptical that the proposed school would ever get off the ground. Eventually, plans jelled as NTA planners worked to bring colleges of education on board.

(Currently, 13 Chicago-area universities, including Roosevelt, Chicago State and DePaul, are sending student teachers to the school, and the Academy is looking to expand to downstate institutions.)

“NTA’s faculty made a great effort to develop a solid working relationship with several universities,” says Connie Goddard, director of field placement and partnerships at Roosevelt University. “We sent our students because it looked like it was a conscientiously developed student teaching program.”

Before student teachers are selected, NTA administrators interview candidates, review their grades and assign a short writing exercise. The goal is to make “a philosophical match” by placing student teachers in the grades and subjects they want to teach. This year, five were turned away because such matches were not available.

NTA also looks for student teachers who will commit to teaching in CPS for four years after graduation. Although the teaching commitment is not binding, “we asked universities to send us students that understood our mission is preparing students for urban teaching,” says Mary Ann Manley, NTA’s pre-service coordinator who was formerly a curriculum coordinator in District 36 in Winnetka.

Nine of the 10 students who finished student teaching at NTA in December were hired by CPS. Three head their own classrooms, three are substitute teachers and three were hired to assist mentor teachers at NTA. (Two work with small reading groups; another is an aide with the Academy’s kindergarten team.)

“After my experience at NTA, I wanted to model my classroom like the ones there,” says former student teacher Denitra Griffin, who teaches lst grade at Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn. One technique she picked up from NTA was breaking her class into activity groups, like a listening center where students independently listen to taped stories from headsets. This frees up Griffin to tend to students individually or in small groups.

Learning from masters

NTA’s student teachers learn from the masters—a faculty of experienced teachers who have earned National Board Certification, and others who are currently going through the process.

“The school has an excellent staff in terms of qualifications,” says Dale Fausch, who formerly handled student teacher assignments for DePaul University. “This is one of the reasons we chose NTA because we try to find excellent cooperating teachers for our students.”

One former student teacher was impressed by the time and energy mentor teachers put into their jobs. “It’s contagious,” says Chanera Smith, now an aide for three kindergarten classrooms at NTA. “There is so much support here. I know I can stop anyone in this building and get help.”

NTA student teachers have another advantage over their counterparts at many other schools. They have the opportunity to meet mentor teachers before they begin working in classrooms. Last semester, students got together with their teachers over the summer to set up classrooms and plan the curriculum.

“On my first day, I met my cooperating teacher and she told me, ‘This is our classroom and we’re going to organize it together,'” says Deloise Thomas, now a 7th-grade teacher at Lawrence in Jeffery Manor. “I was given freedom to try new things and explore.”

Time for reflection

Reflection is the fabric of NTA. Each week, student teachers meet with their cooperating teachers for study groups and other meetings across grade levels to review classroom practices.

“Every Friday after school, the two meet to talk about why they do what they do,” Manley explains. “The student teacher might ask, ‘Why did you group the kids the way you did during that lesson?’ And the cooperating teacher might ask, ‘Why do you think I did that? Do you think it worked?’

“Teachers need to reflect on why things were done,” she concludes.

To give student teachers a chance to review their instruction technique, NTA videotapes them at least once, mirroring a National Board teaching strategy. Student teachers review the tape with their cooperating teachers to pinpoint what worked and what didn’t

And twice a month, trainees and cooperating teachers meet after school in study groups to talk about education topics, such as literacy. Sometimes, the school social worker and counselor join the discussions so student teachers will better understand their roles and the services they provide.

“The faculty has a relationship that is awesome,”

Thomas says. “Those people communicate daily.”

The practice of reflecting has even trickled down to the children. NTA’s curriculum calls for cooperating teachers, student teachers and students to meet every morning and talk about good things their peers and instructors do. They also discuss concerns or express their wishes for the day.

“Students might acknowledge a fellow student for getting a good grade on a spelling test,” says 3rd-grade teacher LaTina Booker-Taylor. “Another may say they are concerned because a student is picking on them. A child might wish to pass a particular test. “At this school, this is all necessary and important. Kids have a voice here.”

Getting feedback

Not yet a year old, NTA is gathering intelligence to evaluate its program. It has held in-house focus groups with staff and talked to university representatives and college of education deans.

The Academy also seeks input from student teachers. Before they leave, student teachers have exit interviews where they are asked to candidly talk about their experiences—what worked, what didn’t and what still needs to be clarified. Their suggestions are immediately put to use.

For example, first semester student teachers wanted individual mailboxes and training in how to maintain attendance records and other administrative tasks. NTA made the adjustments in time for second-semester student teachers.

“As far as we’re concerned, our program design is still in draft form and adjustments will be made when needed,” says Manley.

As part of the first-semester follow-up, NTA staff held a teacher alumni gathering to keep in touch up with the student teachers.

“My cooperating teacher continues to mentor me today,” says Griffin. “For instance, since I’ve been teaching, she’s given me tips on how to teach 1st graders to read.” For example, her former teacher told her how to create a “story well” that summarizes a story sequentially by numbering and labeling the events.

As NTA approaches the end of its first year, Thomas worries that perceptions about NTA’s location may inhibit college students from considering the first-rate student teaching opportunity there.

“A lot of students are not aware of what NTA offers and only think about it in terms of it being near the projects,” says Thomas, who graduated from Chicago State University. “I’ve told students at CSU that it behooves them to apply, that they only have one chance to student teach and why not student teach with the best. Being at NTA was like a breath of fresh air.”

For more information about the National Teachers Academy, call (773) 534-9970.

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