Project Inspire aims to put better teachers in schools with poor, minority students

By Kendi Anderson, Chattanooga Times Free Press, January 18th, 2017

Adrianne Cowan believes the best way to train teachers is by allowing them to learn from really good teachers.

It’s how she learned to teach, spending a year in a classroom with a seasoned teacher before having a class of her own.

“You’re not a perfect teacher from the beginning,” Cowan said. “You have to develop your craft.”

And now, as an eighth-grade science teacher at Ooltewah Middle School, Cowan is helping a new teacher do the same through Project Inspire, a teacher residency program serving Hamilton County.

Six years ago, the Public Education Foundation, a local nonprofit organization, launched Project Inspire to train middle and high school math and science teachers by placing them in classrooms of highly effective teachers for a full school year. After the residency year, Project Inspire graduates are expected to spend at least four years teaching in one of Hamilton County’s struggling schools.

The project plans to rapidly grow — doubling the number of residents in the program next year, training 25 aspiring teachers. In 2018, it hopes to have 50 residents.

Organizers also are expanding the program to include elementary literacy teachers and a partnership with Lee University, where residents will earn master’s degrees in education during their residency.

“We are excited about the wider net we can cast,” said Mark Neal, director of Project Inspire. “It’s all about increasing the district’s access to a diverse and talented teaching force.”

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Research shows teachers are the most important in-school factors influencing a student’s academic success. Poor and minority students in Hamilton County do not have equal access to the district’s best teachers because the schools they attend typically employ larger shares of least-effective teachers and are among the district’s lowest performing, according to school data.

Project Inspire can be used to increase equity in these low-performing schools, Neal said. Data show the program’s graduates are outperforming their peers in similar classrooms across the district.

Justin Robertson, Hamilton County Schools assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said the district’s partnership with Project Inspire benefits both students and teachers. And, he said, expanding the program will bring more high-quality teachers to the district, providing teachers with leadership opportunities as they help train the residents.

Adding elementary literacy — an area the district is working to improve — as a track for residents is also important, he said. About 60 percent of Hamilton County third-graders are not reading on grade level, and Robertson hopes more teachers with a passion for literacy can bolster the scores.

The district also is taking a more comprehensive approach to turning around struggling schools, Robertson said. Placing Project Inspire graduates in the district’s lowest-performing schools is one of the strategies he hopes is used.

“We are trying to think strategically about the resources we currently have and how to use the residency to help these schools now,” he said.

Chattanooga 2.0, a community initiative to improve education and workforce development, released a list of strategies last year aimed at helping the county provide more opportunities for all residents, regardless of ZIP code. One of the strategies focuses on recruiting and retaining top teachers to the district, and another highlights the need to improve literacy scores.

Jared Bigham, coordinator of Chattanooga 2.0, said Project Inspire’s expansion is a great example of the work coming out of Chattanooga 2.0.

“One of the most impactful things we can do in the K-12 space is support a talent pipeline of high potential teachers into Hamilton County classrooms,” Bigham said. “PEF has a great track record with Project Inspire in math and science, so it is exciting to see the expansion of this program into literacy.”

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Many teachers in Hamilton County and across the state come to the classroom through a traditional pathway, meaning they have a bachelor’s degree in education. Project Inspire residents are considered non-traditional teaching candidates. Most have a math or science degree, and many have worked in those fields before deciding to teach.

Starting next school year, Lee University will provide Project Inspire residents with a 14-month Master of Arts in Teaching program.

Bill Estes, dean of Lee University’s Helen DeVos College of Education, said the new program is specifically tailored to residents’ needs and will focus on the teaching methods — residents are expected to already have mastered their subject.

Lee has graduated more than 750 teacher candidates through its traditional program in the past five years, and Estes said more than 200 of its students are placed in Hamilton County classrooms each semester for student teaching.

“We know the principals and we know the teachers in Hamilton County,” Estes said. “This is an advantage.”

Understanding diversity, challenges and opportunities facing the district, Estes said he is glad Lee is partnering with Project Inspire to help bolster the teaching force in Hamilton County. Residents will be supervised and coached by Hamilton County classroom teachers, Project Inspire staff and Lee’s faculty.

“Intensive training and constant feedback, that’s what residents need,” he said. “And that’s what they’ll get.”

For Steven Morrison, a resident in Cowan’s classroom this year, the daily support and constructive criticism helps. Morrison, whose background is in business and biology, said he’s figuring out how to be a stronger teacher.

“I’m really learning to pick up on classroom norms,” he said.

During the year, Cowan said she’s watched Morrison grow more comfortable making instructional decisions and he’s asking students better questions. She said the experience is making her a better teacher, too.

“Teaching is an evolving craft, and [having a resident] forces me to be very thoughtful about the decisions I make as a teacher,” she said. “It forces me to stay on my game.”

For students in Cowan and Morrison’s science class, it’s nice having two teachers.

“It’s like we get extra help,” said Jakob Davis, an eighth-grader.

Just down the hall at Ooltewah Middle School is Olivia Oseguera, another Project Inspire resident.

Oseguera worked as a geologist before deciding she wanted to teach. She said Project Inspire allows her to do work she believes is making a difference in the community.

“You can’t just be passionate about the subject you’re teaching, but also about the change that is happening,” she said.

About 30 Project Inspire graduates work across the district in Hamilton County Schools, and Tad Russell is one of them.

This is his second year teaching science at Soddy-Daisy Middle School, and he said the network and ongoing support of Project Inspire is a huge asset.

“Project Inspire has created a culture of professional development,” Russell said. “It’s great to be able to hear from other teachers, and it’s not just complaining, it’s sharing successes and telling others what you did in the classroom and how the kids loved it.”

Russell also appreciates being surrounded by other passionate teachers, and he has watched his Project Inspire colleagues bring a surge of energy to their schools.

“You start to influence the culture of a school with these passionate teachers — it’s infectious,” Russell said.

Project Inspire

Project Inspire residents receive:

A one-year apprenticeship in a Hamilton County classroom

A Masters of Arts in Teaching, and a teaching license

A living stipend during the residency, and a $10,000-a-year bonus atop the teaching salary during the four years the graduate is required to teach in Hamilton County

Four years of coaching support and professional development while teaching in Hamilton County

Community of other residents and the ability to learn from experts