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October 28, 2013

Local Administrators Give High Marks to ODU’s Teacher Immersion Residency Program

feature1-lgTIR graduate Joseph Blacketer is in his third year as a full-time teacher at Norview High School. Photo by Chuck Thomas
By Steve Daniel

It may be considered small by some standards, but Old Dominion's Teacher Immersion Residency (TIR) program is paying off big in the eyes of area school administrators. In the short time it has been in existence, it has built a reputation for producing outstanding classroom teachers.

Established in 2009, thanks to a five-year, $6 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the apprenticeship-based program of study is designed for individuals with a deep commitment to teaching in high-need schools. ODU's grant was one of only 28 awarded nationwide. The only other TIR program in the state is based at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The grants are aimed at helping school districts attract potential educators from a wide range of professional backgrounds. These are people who did not pursue teaching certification during their undergraduate years and who may have worked in a variety of fields since graduation.

The highly selective master's program in secondary education leads to licensure in math, English, social studies, earth science, biology, chemistry or physics. It features an intensive 12-month graduate-level training program.

TIR program residents complete 42 semester hours of graduate study, which includes 18 hours of coursework in English, math, science or social studies, nine hours in a middle school- or high school-based residency, and 15 hours of professional education courses. They are assigned a trained teacher mentor in the public school as well as a university mentor for expert support during their training. A final element of the program is a summer internship designed to give the students discipline-specific and real-world experiences.

To date, ODU-TIR has graduated three classes whose 27 alumni are all teaching in the Norfolk and Portsmouth public schools. "Our 100 percent rate of retention of graduates is unheard of," says Megan Britt, ODU-TIR program director. "They are all fulfilling their three-year service commitment."

Students who are accepted into the program receive free tuition and fees, a $25,500 living stipend, a laptop computer and $1,000 for professional development. Those who successfully complete the program are guaranteed a job as a teacher in a high-need school in the Norfolk or Portsmouth public school system. This includes three years of mentoring after receiving their M.S. in secondary education. In exchange for all the financial and professional support, the TIR residents sign an agreement that they will serve as a full-time teacher for a minimum of three years after the residency - or forfeit/reimburse the program for all financial incentives; all funds must be repaid, including stipend, equipment and services.

The current class of 14 students - the largest to date - began this fall, and is the most diverse of the previous TIR classes at ODU, Britt said. It includes three African Americans, one Asian American and two males.

African Americans, in particular, are highly recruited for the TIR program, which is eager to place them in schools where there are sizable minority populations. Last year, three African Americans in the TIR program joined with Britt as guests on "Another View," the WHRV-FM show hosted by Barbara Hamm Lee that discusses "today's topics from an African American perspective." The TIR students interviewed were Keith Goodman, a physics teacher at Norfolk's Norview High School from the first TIR class of students; Cabrillya Crumm, an English teacher at Norfolk's Granby High School from the second TIR class; and Tashiana Verna, a chemistry teacher at Norview from the third TIR class.

These future teachers, like the other 24 students who are currently in or have graduated from the TIR program, are motivated - and area school systems are eager to partner in their desire to make a difference in the area's inner-city classrooms.

Granby principal Ted Daughtrey is an enthusiastic supporter of the TIR program. "The TIR program has been a tremendous asset to Granby High School," he said. "We have been able to provide a year's worth of training for the TIR students and they have performed at such a high level we have hired several of them as full-time teachers the following year. I have truly been impressed with the caliber of students in the TIR program. They have been strong academically, seem to possess the common sense necessary to work in a fast-paced environment and are strong participants in collaborative settings."

Another advantage of hiring teachers from the TIR program has to do with their preparation, in many instances, to teach Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses. Currently, 10 of the program's 27 graduates are teaching AP courses.

"I routinely work with former TIR teachers who are now teaching AP courses. The teachers who have emerged from the ODU program all share several characteristics that make them outstanding teachers. They possess a work ethic and a level of content knowledge not common among many beginning teachers," said Bruce Brady, AP instructional specialist for Norfolk Public Schools.

"The attitude they exhibit is far superior and they all demonstrate a long-term commitment to the teaching field and to their students. ... The TIR teachers are a tremendous asset to the division and I would hope that the program would continue at Old Dominion University," he added.

Of the TIR program's 27 graduates, eight are on the teaching staff at Norview High School.

"I love the TIR program," says Norview principal Marjorie Stealey who, incidentally, earned a master's in education at ODU. "It allows me to anticipate my teacher needs and plan accordingly for a wonderful first-year teacher who has already spent a year in an urban school.

"Additionally, I am able to select one of my outstanding teachers to serve as a yearlong mentor. It is a principal's dream to mentor TIRs and hire them with essentially a year's worth of carefully coached teaching experience."

TIR graduate Joseph Blacketer, who earned a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Virginia, is now in his third year as a full-time teacher at Norview. He teaches World Studies II (from 1500 to present) at the regular and honors level, and also teaches a dual-enrollment class on Ancient History through Virginia State University.

He believes the TIR philosophy of immersing students early in the classroom helps them in the long run.

"It is very difficult to ready someone for the classroom, particularly the kinds of classrooms where this program is preparing us to enter. Compared to traditional teacher prep programs, TIR allowed us much more classroom time and therefore had us better able to handle it on our own by day one," he said.

As a sign of the growing maturation of the young TIR program, Blacketer was selected to mentor a first-year TIR student, Rachel Ausura, who will be shadowing him in the classroom throughout the current school year.

"I think I was selected as a mentor because, while still relatively inexperienced in the classroom, I can also help Rachel with the requirements of the program," Blacketer said. "Students take six graduate credits in their content area in addition to 18 credits in teacher education, all while working full time in a school building. It is extremely rigorous, so having someone who survived it can be helpful."

Blacketer says he enjoys teaching at Norview and plans to continue in the profession. "Few jobs can offer the rewards of teaching. My students are fantastic, my players - I also coach boys volleyball - work very hard and my co-workers are very supportive. It's a challenging job, but I wouldn't trade it to work behind a desk for 40 hours a week."

He added: "The TIR program has managed to build small communities of teachers. It has kept its graduates in the field at a much higher rate than the national average, and I am consistently impressed by what my fellow alumni do in their classrooms. It is a great program that I hope continues for many years to come."

It is a hope shared by Britt and others within the Darden College. The program's initial five-year DOE grant ends next year, and Britt said she is keeping her fingers crossed that it will be renewed.

"This program is the most exciting, fulfilling work I've done in my 20 years in education. I am exceedingly pleased with our graduates' professionalism and energy, and grateful for the cooperation we have with the districts - especially the talented teachers who mentor our students and believe, together, we're at the forefront of refining teacher preparation," Britt said.

"Our mission is clear: guide and support early-career teachers as they navigate an ever-more-complex profession. We're doing it. Even better, we don't just produce great teachers; we produce great teachers who stay teachers. If we can stop, even slow, the revolving door of good teachers coming into the classroom, but leaving before they become great, we can help each partnering principal build a talented, stable faculty."