School partnership spearheads novel way to train teachers

March 17, 2011 -- The College of Education has teamed up with a middle school in one of San Francisco's toughest neighborhoods to pilot a novel approach to preparing California public school teachers.

Photo of nine teaching credential students in the Professional Development School program at Visitacion Valley Middle School, pictured with Principal James Dierke and Professor Yanan Fan.

Teaching credential students in the Professional Development School program at Visitacion Valley Middle School, with Principal James Dierke (back row, second from left) and Professor Yanan Fan (front row, left).

The new program places a cohort of SF State students at Visitacion Valley Middle School for one year where they complete the usual classroom observation and teaching practice required to earn a teaching credential. But they also attend many of their University classes at the school site, where they are taught collaboratively by University faculty and the middle school's teachers, counselors and administrators.

Known as a Professional Development School (PDS), the program is among a growing number of partnerships across the nation, designed to close the gap between academia and K-12 classrooms.

"The link between theory and practice is often regarded as the weakest link in teacher education," said Assistant Professor of Secondary Education Yanan Fan, who runs the  PDS program, with support from Nathan Avani, chair of the Secondary Education Department. "This new way of preparing teachers helps students see how teaching strategies play out in real life and it follows the 'learning by doing' approach promoted by the educator John Dewey. A community-based program like this offers student teachers opportunities to build their skills in service learning, action research, and cultural immersion."

The program provides a more supportive and structured experience compared to typical teaching credential programs, where student teachers are placed on their own at local schools and attend classes once a week on campus.

"The program feels much more connected," said Cassondra Curiel, who is training to be an English teacher and is one of 10 students who entered the PDS cohort last fall. "The assignments set by Professor Fan are tailored to our day-to-day experience because she's familiar with the school setting and spends time here with us."

"It's been so helpful to hear from the school's administrators and teachers," Curiel said. "It helps us understand how the school works and where to go for help if we need it."

At the credential students' classes, Fan drives the curriculum, but the school's staff of 30 helps deliver teaching material on such topics as classroom management and working with English Language Learners.

"We assist the student teachers with real, feet-on-the-ground materials," said James Dierke, the school's principal. "Our teachers enjoy the opportunity to impart their knowledge to new teachers. At the same time, they learn from the student teachers about various new practices being taught at the University, which keeps them current with the latest professional development ideas."

In a crime-plagued neighborhood, where expectations for student success often run low, Dierke has transformed Visitacion Valley Middle School into a safe, nurturing learning environment. For his efforts, he was named National Middle School Principal of the Year in 2008 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Jacob Perea, dean of the College of Education, says this kind of school is the ideal partner for the University's first PDS program. "Spending time at a tough school site where there is nothing but success going on is one of the best ways we can prepare our students to teach in diverse, urban schools," Perea said. "The experience they have there will make our students even more marketable for the workplace."

After the first year of the pilot program, the College of Education will consider expanding the program to other school sites, including local elementary and high schools.

More information about teaching credential programs can be found at:

-- Elaine Bible