Meeting a Critical Community Need: FAU's Urban Academy

Preparing tomorrow's teachers: Stranahan High School and
UTAP graduates Jessen Charles and Rhesa Achille with
Dr. Kathleen O’Rourke, FAU Urban Academy liaison to Broward Schools

Helping to fulfill a critical employment need in the community is one of the greatest roles a university can play.   That's why FAU is at the forefront of helping to deliver well-trained teachers to low performing urban schools, where the turnover rate has grown over the years at a dizzying pace.

Urban Schools have suffered because teachers put into those environments are often ill-prepared for the cultural and academic challenges.   Most quit or run to suburban schools.

To tackle this challenge, the Broward County Educational Consortium, of which FAU is a charter member, formed the Urban Academies Broward County Program (UABC), designed to train teachers for placement in some of Broward County’s hardest to staff schools.   In 2006, the program was recognized by the Ash Institute at Harvard University as one of the seven most innovative government programs in the United States.

Over a six year period, the program prepared more than 360 teacher interns, all of whom have accepted positions at Broward County schools.   More than 90 percent have remained in their jobs and more than 90 percent of the staff who work with them reported a high degree of satisfaction.

Rhesa Achille and Jessen Charles are just two examples of a growing population of Broward County students who are being channeled into teaching in urban classroom settings, where teachers are desperately needed.

When Rhesa was in middle school student, she and her 8th grade classmates signed up for the Urban Teachers Academies Program (UTAP), an Urban Academy initiative, as a way to get out of class.   She never considered becoming a teacher.   Teaching wasn't on Jessen Charles' radar screen either when his 9th grade English teacher recruited him into UTAP.

Today, both are Stranahan High School graduates preparing for their careers in teaching by attending the FAU, Broward Community College 2+2 program on full scholarships.   Once they graduate, they will return to urban classroom settings well trained to teach and inspire young students.

Both attribute their experience working with students at North Fork Elementary School, a Broward County school struggling to raise low achievement scores, to their choice to pursue careers as teachers.

"When I went to Norfolk, I really enjoyed it," said Rhesa.   "I worked there for three years and the experience made me want to become a teacher."

"I started helping little kids and saw that they reacted better to someone younger," added Jessen.   "During my field experience at both North Fork and New River Middle School, I saw students reading better.   That was rewarding."

Rhesa, who lives with her grandmother, mother and younger brother, will be the first in her immediate family to attend college.   She has lived in Fort Lauderdale since she moved from California in the first grade.  Her dream is to teach English, share her love of poetry and make a difference.

"My goal is to go back to a school like Stranahan, where I can make a difference with kids who aren't exposed to the bigger world," she said.   "I want to help broaden their horizons."

Jessen's parents were both teachers in their native Haiti, but he and his younger brother have been raised in Fort Lauderdale.   His goal is to teach math at the middle school level.

Hallandale Elementary School is one example of a school that has benefited from hiring FAU graduates trained to teach in urban schools. Sharon Ludwig, the principal of the school since 1995, said her school was one of the first to participate.   Successful at moving Hallandale from a "D" to an "A," Principal Ludwig proudly reports that most of her teachers are "out of the Urban Academy."

"The reason we're an 'A' school is our focus on getting the best and the brightest teachers I can find," she said, claiming that graduates now clamor to get into Hallandale. "The universities, especially FAU, now give the teachers real enough training to prepare them for urban schools."

"The UABC model works because it relies on locally-trained teachers who have desires to teach students in our community's urban schools," echoed Dr. Kathleen O’Rourke, the FAU liaison to Broward Schools.

The Urban Teachers Academy Program (UTAP), of which the first students will be graduating in 2008, begins tapping potential students starting in middle school and sometimes as early as elementary school.   Those interested and able to pursue teaching careers enter a rigorous four-year high school program, which includes practical experience at local schools, exposure to higher education and instruction from master teachers.   Upon successful completion, the students are guaranteed a debt-free college education through the Broward Teacher Fellowship.   UTAP coordinators continue to support the students throughout college as well.   Graduates are guaranteed positions in urban Broward Schools.

Training and mentoring are key reasons this program has been so successful, says the professor. "We conduct lots of training with both faculty and students to make them more able and comfortable to work in urban schools," she explained.   "Today, we're finding that many students want to go into urban schools, because they find it so rewarding."

Sara Rogers, coordinator of the Urban Academy for Broward County, says the program is turning out highly-qualified teachers to teach in schools, which in the past didn't always get the best teachers.

"We're putting good teachers in underperforming schools," she said.   "All FAU students receive extensive student teaching experience and field experience with master teachers.  Because of the exposure of the program, our best students at FAU are now starting to identify future teachers for us."

Through the nearly decade-old Urban Academies, and the newer UTAP at five Broward high schools, the collaboration between the school district, FAU and other local universities is meeting its objectives of raising the achievement of urban students to the highest level, encouraging and supporting high school students interested in teaching as a career and increasing the number of qualified teachers available for Broward County schools.

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