VCU teacher residency program moves into Petersburg

NaQue Walker (left) and 19-year veteran Sheila Mosby teach a math class at Cool Spring Elementary in Petersburg. The school district now has a program in which VCU students get master’s degrees while teaching in public schools under the supervision of mentors. (DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/times-dispatch)
NaQue Walker (left) and 19-year veteran Sheila Mosby teach a math class at Cool Spring Elementary in Petersburg. The school district now has a program in which VCU students get master’s degrees while teaching in public schools under the supervision of mentors. (DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/times-dispatch)

By Justin Mattingly, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 804- 649-6012

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The end of the period is approaching in Sheila Mosby’s third-grade classroom.

Students are finishing up their work before lining up near the door to go to other classrooms. Like most teachers, Mosby rewards the clusters of students behaving well by letting them line up first. But she’s not the only voice of authority in the room.

Fresh out of Virginia State University, NaQue Walker co-teaches the class at Petersburg’s Cool Spring Elementary School through a Virginia Commonwealth University program that immerses want-to-be-teachers directly inside classrooms.

They see it all, the good and the bad, in what school officials and experts describe as the best hands-on experience for prospective teachers, specifically in high-need schools like the ones targeted by the Richmond Teacher Residency program that struggle with teacher turnover.

“It’s difficult to just sit in class and talk about teaching,” said Walker, who is originally from Norfolk. “Now, I’m out here actually doing it.”

The residency program, which started in Richmond Public Schools, expanded into Petersburg this year with a cohort of eight teaching residents — four at Pleasants Lane Elementary School and four at Cool Spring Elementary School. With plans to stretch into Henrico County next year, the program will be in high-need schools in four area school districts.

Like in a medical school residency program, the VCU students, who are pursuing master’s degrees, work in a classroom under the supervision of a mentor teacher. The veteran teachers are paid for taking on the extra responsibility. The residents, paid a $21,000 stipend in Petersburg, still have to take classes to get their master’s.

Walker has classes on Mondays, for example, and her absence was noted among students.

“I was shocked they missed me,” she said. “They actually noticed.”

It’s made Mosby, her mentor teacher, a bit jealous.

“I didn’t have that same opportunity to get the hands-on experience,” the 19-year teaching veteran said.

At the end of the residency year, residents agree to teach for three years in the district.

“These are not people who are in it and just leave; they’re in it for the long-term,” said Kim McKnight, the director of the Petersburg program.

VCU created the Richmond Teacher Residency in 2010 thanks to a $5.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to design and implement the program. Its first cohort of nine students entered Richmond city classrooms in 2011. The program’s enrollment has ballooned to 38 residents this year, more than half of whom are students of color.

More than 4 in 5 teachers who have gone through the program have been retained for three or more years, according to RTR data. Seven in 10 were rated by their principals as more effective than other teachers with comparable experience levels, the data show.

“You have to prepare teachers in the kind of setting in which they will function,” said Terry Dozier, the program’s executive director.

The program’s expansion and success comes alongside a growing body of research saying residency programs are one of the better teacher preparation models for prospective teachers.

“Residencies are an incredible opportunity to change the way teachers learn their craft,” said a July report from Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.

Nationally, low-income and minority students — the population the Richmond residency program serves — have disproportionate numbers of inexperienced and ineffective teachers, according to The Education Trust, another Washington-based nonprofit.

“As a school of education in an urban-serving public research university, it’s our responsibility to be doing a program like this,” said Andrew Daire, the dean of VCU’s School of Education.

Residency programs aren’t the only effort to put better teachers — or, in some cases, just a teacher — in urban classrooms.

Teach for America, a national organization that recruits college graduates who make a two-year commitment to teach in high-need public schools, is the most well-known program, placing about 10,000 teachers a year in more than 50 areas across the U.S.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed legislation in 2013 allowing TFA to operate in Virginia schools. Richmond was the first to pursue it, announcing a partnership that same year with the organization to bring up to 30 teachers a year for the city school system.

When the Richmond School Board decided to pursue the TFA partnership, the VCU program had just 10 residents. Top administrators in the School of Education opposed the decision, which ultimately fell apart after TFA pulled out in 2015 because of a nationwide shortage in candidates.

“They’re not looking for people who want to be teachers,” said Dozier, the RTR executive director. “That’s a Band-Aid approach. They’re going to be gone in two years, and you’ll need to fill that hole again. We’ve got to create a sustainable pipeline.”

The program’s RPS roots could see further expansion under the new administration.

Superintendent Jason Kamras, who took over in February, has been a vocal supporter of the program, which has 26 residents in city schools this year. The school system loses about 1 in 5 teachers every year.

“Teaching is really, really hard. If you have an opportunity to have your first year before you have your first year, so to speak, that’s really powerful,” Kamras said in a recent interview. “Nothing replaces the on-the-job experience that the residents get. At the same time, kids aren’t paying the price because there’s a mentor teacher there.”

He added: “It becomes a yearlong interview for the resident and the principal.”

Bradley Mock, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in the city’s East End who was a resident of the program in 2014, had that experience after two years in West Africa through the Peace Corps.

Now Mock, in his fourth year of teaching, is the elder statesman at a school where last year nearly half of teachers had a year of experience or less. He said his residency experience helped prepare him for teaching in a city classroom.

“It’s a nice, graduated release that I find nice compared to some teachers who just get thrown into the classroom with little preparation,” Mock said.

After six years of just being in Richmond, RTR added a lone Chesterfield County school in 2017, piloting the model at Ettrick Elementary School with three teacher residents.

In 2014, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission offered up a teacher residency program as a potential long-term solution to Petersburg’s struggles with teacher retention.

This year, for example, about 15 percent of the district’s close to 350 teachers are new.

Through a shared partnership model — with the state, school district and private foundations all kicking in money — the program moved into Petersburg this year.

“I wanted to help children in general,” said Chris Stevens, a Marine Corps veteran and a resident at Pleasants Lane. “I figured it’d be better to be in a school district that needed somebody.”

Plans call for five residents at both Pleasants Lane and Cool Spring next year and a total of 58 teachers incorporated into the school division in the next five years.

“It helps us to not have long-term subs and to actually have teachers,” said Kelly Tobe, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

With its presence now in Petersburg, RTR is recruiting its first cohort of residents for Henrico next year.

Said Daire, the VCU education school dean: “It’s a point of pride, but we’re not done yet.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch Story