Grant to ready teachers for high-poverty schools

FAYETTEVILLE -- A three-year, $10 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will fund a new training and recruitment initiative for teachers working in high-poverty schools, the university announced Wednesday.

The new Arkansas Academy of Educational Equity seeks to train between 150 and 200 early-career teachers over the three years of the pilot project that would begin recruitment this spring.

The program will initially be limited to a few partnering school districts in the state, said Gary Ritter, a UA faculty member who co-wrote the proposal approved by the foundation. Teachers in the training program would be working toward a UA master's degree without paying tuition, he said.

The idea for the initiative dates back to meetings over two years with public school leaders, UA faculty members and others, including funding groups, said Ritter, who collaborated with Tom Smith, another UA education professor, on the proposal.

"When folks got around the table and discussed all the challenges in low-income schools, we came to the conclusion that teachers taking on roles in these schools need to have unique training," Ritter said. "It's a qualitatively different task to be a high-quality, high-expectations teacher in an economically disadvantaged school than it is to be a teacher in a middle-class school."

Attracting teachers to high-poverty schools is a challenge, he said, referring to UA research data.

"In the least poor districts in the state, they get 7.5 applicants for every vacancy. In the most poor, they get 2.5," Ritter said, adding that focus groups suggest teachers leave because of a lack of support. "So what we're hoping is that the support we're giving them early in their career would encourage them to stay longer."

The grant will pay for a staff of about a dozen, according to UA. Ritter said staff members will include coaches with classroom or school leadership "experience of success with students in high-poverty schools."

The training is under development but participants are "not going to be sitting in classrooms with professors like me preaching at them," Ritter said, and the initiative will be evaluated on "whether the students that are being served by our academy teachers are better off than they would be otherwise."

Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District, said training early-career teachers to have "the social-cultural awareness of the families and the students that we're serving" could be one worthy component of any new training program.

Another helpful training component might involve learning ways to create partnerships with students, families "and even the outside community, to support what's going on in the classroom," Poore said.

Poore said talks are ongoing about the district participating in the program.

"This can be something that can be very positive," he said, adding that the initiative "could positively attract people to come to Little Rock or Arkansas."

Luis Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Walton Family Foundation, in an email said children "deserve access to a great school, and one way we can make that happen is by ensuring educators have access to the training and resources they need."

The foundation is led by the family of Sam and Helen Walton, founders of Wal-Mart, and, according to its website, has "invested more than $1.3 billion in K-12 education and supported more than a quarter of the 6,700 charter schools created in the United States."

Ritter said between four to eight districts might participate. Asked if charter schools might take part, he said, "right now we're working with traditional public schools."

He added the academy will not use a formal definition of "high-poverty" in determining school district participation.

The program will consider "only teachers who can show a track record of success already, albeit in only a short number of years," Ritter said. The teachers after two years would earn a master's degree in "educational equity," a new degree program that still requires final approval, he said.

The goal is to recruit perhaps 30 teachers in the spring with the first intensive summer training session next year, with the summer sessions likely happening in central or southern Arkansas, Ritter said.

Funding agreement documents released by UA under the state's public disclosure law describe the $10.234 million grant's purpose as "to establish a world-class institution dedicated to the recruitment and training of classroom educators and school leaders for the state's highest-need, highest-poverty schools across the state."

A listed goal is "unambiguous district satisfaction, sustainable operations and a model for selecting additional districts." One of several outcomes and outputs listed as satisfying this goal is for principals to report "objective improvement in at least 85% of the 25+ classrooms supported by this initiative" by the end of the 2018-19 school year.

Metro on 12/07/2017