Recruiting the future of education; Students learn joy of teaching at A&M system’s summer camps

Monday, July 23, 2001
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Recruiting the future of education
Students learn joy of teaching at A&M system’s summer camps

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

COMMERCE – “I want you all to close your eyes.”

Gwen Boyter, an education professor at Texas A&M-Commerce, is talking to about 45 high school students. They do as told.

“I want you all to have a vision of the future. Think about going to college. Imagine yourself graduating from that college.

“Then imagine the teaching job you might have after you graduate. Imagine a day in that job that would be truly rewarding. Maybe it’s the day a student comes back and says, ‘Thank you for what you did for me.'”

The students had to open their eyes a moment later to watch a video. But Dr. Boyter – and state officials – hope their visions will become reality soon enough.

The students were taking part last week in a summer camp for potential future teachers. The camp is one part of an organized attack by state agencies and universities on one of Texas’ biggest educational problems: the shortage of qualified teachers.

“It’s scary how much work there is to do,” said Michel Zuch, coordinator of teacher recruitment for the A&M system’s Institute for School-University Partnerships.

At camp, that work begins with convincing students that teachers can change the lives of others.

“You see the look on a kid’s face when he learns something and you know that teaching is very special,” said Brittany Nobles, who will be a junior this fall at Sour Lake High School near Beaumont.

The high rate of turnover in the profession has meant schools have had to work to find new teachers each year. But the collision of several trends has made the task more difficult. The rising number of students and class-size requirements in lower grades have forced districts to hire more teachers.

The fastest-growing group of students – Hispanics – often require bilingual or English-as-a-second-language teachers, who are among the most difficult to recruit. And low unemployment and a strong economy have pushed many teachers into better-paying jobs.

It might get worse. Dr. Zuch said that 80 percent of the Texas school employees enrolled in the state’s teacher retirement system will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years. “That’s pretty scary,” she said.

Last year, Texas school districts had nearly 40,000 teacher openings, according to an A&M study. While the vast majority were filled, about a quarter of the new teachers were not fully certified in the areas they were hired to teach.

Detailed numbers for this year won’t be available for several months. But Dr. Zuch said anecdotal evidence has told her “things weren’t as bad last year as they are this year.” As of last week, Dallas-area school districts had hundreds of teaching positions to fill for the upcoming year, including more than 300 in Dallas.

The high school students who attended the program at A&M-Commerce could be part of the solution to the problem. Not all are sure they’ll become teachers, but they all seem committed to promoting the value of the profession.

“There’s nothing in the world that makes me happier than teaching,” said Chandra Perkins, 17, of West Mesquite High School.

Chandra plans on being a dance teacher and says she was inspired by a fifth-grade art teacher.

“She made me feel like I was living in a different world,” she said. “She gave me a passion, and I wanted to be like her and give my students a love of something.”

Jocelyn Majors, a senior-to-be at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, said she has wanted to be an elementary school teacher since the eighth grade.

“I know I want to be around kids,” she said. “I’d be baby-sitting five kids at one time, and people started telling me I had a knack for dealing with them.”

She attended the camp last year and said the experience boosted her confidence immeasurably.

“Before, I could never get up in front of anyone and talk,” she said. “Now I can. It really brought me out of my shell.”

Micah Elliott, Jocelyn’s classmate at Bell, isn’t as sure he’ll become a teacher, but he said he tries to get as many other people interested in the profession as he can. “I’ve always had fun teaching other people to do stuff – it’s an epiphany to them,” he said.

Persuading students to become teachers is particularly important for rural school districts. Statistics show they have the toughest time filling vacant positions, and studies have shown that new teachers often return to their hometowns after college to teach.

Patricia Guthneck, who sponsors the Texas Association of Future Educators club at Florence High School (enrollment 274) in central Texas, said that local students have to be a vital source of future teachers.

“A first-year teacher in Florence only makes $20,000, so it can be hard to attract people to the job,” she said. “But once you get them working with young people, you get them hooked.”

The Texas A&M system has made an institutional commitment to produce more teachers – about 800 more a year by 2005. About 2,500 teachers come out of the system annually now. The system started conducting the summer camps last year on three of its campuses; this year, all nine campuses in the system will have the camps.

The students who attended the Commerce session were all members of their schools’ chapters of TAFE, a group founded in the 1980s as a way to bring more people into the profession.

Campgoers had a few ideas on how to bring more people into the profession. Add more teacher education classes to Texas high schools. Have more summer camps such as this one. And, most commonly suggested, raise salaries.

“There’s no pay in teaching,” Micah said. “I think I might work as a computer programmer for a while, make some money, then become a teacher. It’s sad to have to do that.”

But Dr. Boyter, who also directs A&M-Commerce’s teacher-training project, said camps such as these can help convince students that it’s worth sacrificing a few dollars to teach.

“As a profession, we’ve gotten a lot of criticism. Students don’t necessarily see it as a rewarding career,” Dr. Boyter said. “Hopefully, they come out of this thinking about teaching in a different way.”

Fun in the sum; Here’s the problem: How to keep kids from forgetting math skills during break

Thursday, July 12, 2001
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Fun in the sum
Here’s the problem: How to keep kids from forgetting math skills during break

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

When Lawrence Seidman’s two children were on summer break from elementary school, he could almost see their math skills slipping away.

“They were losing some every day, and it was frustrating to watch,” said Dr. Seidman, an economics professor at the University of Delaware.

He thought about his options: Could he make them take summer math classes? What about giving them some math homework in July? But in the end, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “It’s not easy being the only ogre parent around. I didn’t push it too far.”

What Dr. Seidman did do was co-write a study on the subject. He found that the summer break was one of the biggest reasons American students trail their international peers in math knowledge. Students forget so much math over the break that it can take months to recover lost ground.

Other studies have shown that students forget math more quickly than any other subject, and that opportunities for learning math in the summer are almost nonexistent for many children. Some manage to go the entire break barely even thinking about numbers.

“We have developed this acceptance of young people forgetting math content over the summer,” said Dr. Lee Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “When the new year begins, we just assume that something has been lost over time.”

Some teachers are trying their own ways of reversing the regression.

Felicity Ross, who teaches math at Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, Md., has started a summer homework program. (Many Japanese schools already feature them.)

For six straight weeks, she mails her incoming students packets of problems to complete and return. To eliminate excuses, she even includes self-addressed, stamped envelopes in which to return their homework.

“A lot of the kids really have downtime during the summer – they’re bored,” she said. “They weren’t very excited about it at first, but they did it.”

The result: What had previously been a month’s worth of review in the fall was reduced to just two or three days.

Particularly pronounced

The math loss is particularly pronounced in earlier grades, when students are learning more through repetition – such as memorizing multiplication tables – and less through mastering concepts. (For the same reason, spelling is the language skill that most often declines over the summer months.)

“The kids who are just memorizing things, they have a tougher time,” said Linda Antinone, a math teacher at Paschal High School in Fort Worth. “If you teach math as a series of things to memorize instead of a series of things to understand, you’d expect kids to forget more.”

When it comes to reading, children at least have easy access to books through libraries and bookstores. Parents know enough about the importance of literacy to make sure their kids read over the break. Teachers often assign summer reading lists to their students. Math doesn’t have those advantages.

“It’s easy to fit in reading programs – go to your library, check out a book,” Dr. Stiff said. “We don’t have an existing infrastructure that would allow us to say go to your ‘blank’ and do your math.”

It doesn’t help that many parents are insecure in their own math skills – and thus sometimes lack the confidence to play math teacher, he said.

Textbook manufacturers are recognizing that there is a market for summer math instruction. Houghton Mifflin publishes a series of “Summer Smarts” workbooks designed to reinforce skills taught the previous year, and other companies market similar publications directly to parents.

Giving up time

Other math teachers give up parts of their summers to help students who might be lagging or who want to excel. Max Warshauer, a professor at Southwest Texas State University, runs MathWorks camps in cities throughout South Texas. This year, they taught more than 2,500 students, many of them poor, in pre-algebra skills.

“All of these kids have much more ability than they’re normally using.” Dr. Warshauer said. “A lot of them aren’t being challenged and pushed without a program like ours.”

Dr. Herb Weinstein, who teaches math at The Hockaday School in Dallas, is one of the leaders of Math Magic, a weeklong summer course for elementary school students available through Southern Methodist University. Dr. Weinstein said it’s important to keep summer math lighthearted if you hope to keep kids’ attention.

“You have to realize you’re trying to get them excited about math during their vacation time,” he said. “So you have to make it fun, use a lot of humor, show how things apply in the real world.”

“At first, some of the kids are just there because their parents made them be there,” said his son Aaron Weinstein, a Tufts University student who is helping him teach Math Magic this summer. “But by the end of the course, even the unenthusiastic kids are excited about math.””You have to realize you’re trying to get them excited about math during their vacation time. So you have to make it fun.”

Summer TAAS puts heat on test-takers; 20,000 hope to pass exams this week

Sunday, July 8, 2001
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Summer TAAS puts heat on test-takers
20,000 hope to pass exams this week

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Anxiety about passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills is part of being young in Texas.

Students worry about everything from acing long division to filling in the bubbles on their answer sheets correctly.

Most students – but not all – get the summer off.

“It’s a little weird to be worried about taking a test when everybody else is enjoying the summer,” said Veronica Pinales, 21, who will be among about 20,000 Texas students taking the TAAS this week. “Everybody’s having fun, and you’re studying geometry.”

In the decade since the TAAS arrived on the academic landscape, it has become the state’s dominant educational force. Many schools orient their spring semester to the test, conducting TAAS pep rallies, offering incentives for better student scores, and pulling out all the stops to improve performance.

There are no pep rallies and no extra after-school help for students such as Ms. Pinales. For them, the test is reduced to its barest essentials: a few hours at a desk, pencil in hand, future at stake.

“It’s just them and the test, without the hype,” said Scott Harris, principal of Dallas Can! Academy, a charter school that focuses on recovering dropouts and a site for the test.

The exit-level TAAS is given four times a year – in October, February and July, plus a testing date in May for graduating seniors and those already out of school. Tenth-graders take the test in February; if they pass all three sections – reading, writing and math – the TAAS becomes just a memory.

If they fail one or more sections, though, the retesting begins. The summer TAAS is their first chance at redemption. Of the 22,474 Texans who took the test in summer 2000, about 54 percent had just completed the 10th grade.

But some need more than two chances. They keep taking the test throughout high school, or even after they drop out. Students are allowed to take high school classes in Texas only until the end of the year they turn 21. But there’s no time limit for taking the TAAS – anyone without a high school diploma can take it.

A test away

Jesse August, 20, is one of those students. She moved to Texas from New York when she was a junior, so she had fewer chances to take the TAAS than her peers. She passed reading and writing, but math was a problem. She dropped out of Sunset High School as a senior, when family financial problems forced her to get a job as a waitress.

“I couldn’t pay bills and go to school at the same time,” she said.

She eventually enrolled at Dallas Can! to catch up on the class credits she had missed. She has now finished them; all that’s standing between her and a diploma is the math portion of the TAAS she’ll take Wednesday.

She took the test in May after only a day or two of preparation and came tantalizingly close: She scored 68. A 70 is needed to pass.

Now, she splits her days between working at Neiman Marcus, where she’s a credit analyst, and Dallas Can!, where she studies geometry and test-taking tips through computer software.

Ms. Pinales dropped out of Bryan Adams High School after her sophomore year, primarily because she thought she could get her credits more quickly at Dallas Can!, she said. But she, too, had trouble with the math section of the TAAS and got sidetracked academically.

She has completed all her coursework but still has the math test in her way. She has been taking a TAAS preparation class at El Centro College; on Wednesday, she’ll try the test for the fourth time.

“I feel more confident,” she said. “I’m gonna do it this time. I’m gonna pass it.”

Summer numbers

The number of students taking the summer TAAS has been dropping in recent years, from 55,170 in 1996 to 22,474 last year. As the TAAS passing rate has increased, fewer students have needed more than one chance.

As might be expected by the different groups of students taking them, the passage rate on the summer TAAS is significantly lower than on the February TAAS, even though the tests have the same degree of difficulty.

Last year, 80 percent of 10th-graders passed all the TAAS tests they took in February. Only 46 percent passed all the tests they took in July, though many students were taking only one or two of the three exit-level tests.

But some teachers say that their students perform better in the summer, when the traditional TAAS buildup machinery isn’t in effect.

“Without all the pep rallies and the stress, a lot of them do better,” said Cheri Warner, director of curriculum and instruction. “For a lot of these kids, it’s the test anxiety that’s keeping them at 67 or 68 instead of 70, and a lot of that goes away in the summer.”

Changes in Texas education scheduled to take effect over the next few years could make the summer TAAS experience significantly more common.

The exit-level exam is the only “high-stakes” test in Texas – meaning it’s the only one whose failure holds students back. As a result, it’s the only one students retake in large numbers.

When the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, replaces TAAS in 2003, other grade-level tests will become “high-stakes,” starting with the third-grade test. As a result, many more students will have to retake TAKS, and the state expects to readjust its testing calendar to account for the change.

Although the new calendar has not been set, it is expected to include up to three testing dates each spring, with the first one likely to come around January.

The TAKS era also will change the exit-level test from 10th to 11th grade, giving students less time to retake the exam before graduation.

Ms. August and her fellow summer test-takers will find out in early August whether they passed. She’s not sure how she’ll do Wednesday – on her last practice test, she didn’t fare so well. But she is determined to pass eventually. October would be her next chance.

“I’m the type of person that if I don’t get it this time, I’ll keep going until I do,” she said.

Yes, she can: 21-year-old overcomes odds to get diploma

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When Angelica Vega dropped off her son, Arnulfo, at kindergarten each morning, the boy sometimes became confused.

“I’d tell him, ‘Mama’s going to school,'” Ms. Vega said. “He’d say, ‘You go to school, too, Mama?’ Then, at night, we’d do our homework side by side.”

Ms. Vega, 21, dropped out of high school shortly after Arnulfo was born. In a way, she followed a trend – no one in her family had ever received a standard high school diploma.

She has a husband and a good job, and many would have excused her if she hadn’t done anything about her education’s early end. But she knew what she wanted.

“I was going to stick to it until I finished,” she said.

On Friday night, Ms. Vega walked across the stage as one of about 200 graduates of the Dallas Can! Academy. Dallas Can! is a charter school that specializes in dropout recovery.

“She wanted to get through more than anything else,” said her school counselor, Pat Wilbert.

Ms. Vega was a successful freshman at Woodrow Wilson High School when she, like thousands of Dallas girls each year, got pregnant. She married her boyfriend, Arnulfo, gave birth to Arnulfo Vega Jr., then tried going back to school. But her son had health problems, and she quickly decided she needed to stay at home.

When Arnulfo was 2, she took a job as a production assistant at Glasfloss Industries, which manufactures air filters. But she soon started thinking about what she had missed by dropping out. “One day I said, ‘I need to go back to school,'” she said.

She enrolled at Dallas Can! in fall 1999. Her employer allowed her to reduce her work schedule. But the stress seemed too much for her. “I was a mother, a wife, an employee and a student all at the same time,” she said. “It was a struggle.”

Second time

She dropped out for a second time. But the people around her wanted to make sure she wasn’t gone for long.

“My counselor kept calling me, saying ‘Come back! You’ve got to come back!'” Her co-workers at Glasfloss reiterated the same message. “They knew how important it was and how much it would mean to me,” she said. “They said, ‘You need your diploma now for the rest of your life.'”

But it was her mother, Josie Facundo, who nailed the point home: “I told her, ‘You need an education out there. I couldn’t get one, but there are people here who want to help you get one.’ And she said, ‘OK, mama.'”

Last fall, with Arnulfo enrolling in kindergarten, Ms. Vega decided it was back-to-school time for her, too. At age 20, she knew it was her last chance to get a standard high school diploma.

Texas law allows students to be enrolled in public schools until they turn 21; when they reach 21, they’re allowed to finish the current school year. Ms. Vega turned 21 in March, which meant if she didn’t earn her diploma by June, a GED would be her only option.

Her older sister had gotten a GED after she had dropped out of high school. But no one in her family had ever received a standard diploma.

“I had no more time. I had to go then or I was lost,” Ms. Vega said. “I had worked so hard for what? Not to finish?”

So it was back to school and back to the schedule that had stressed her before: work from 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., school from 1 to 5 p.m.

She had had trouble with the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which she had to pass to graduate. “She worked so hard, coming in for extra tutoring, doing whatever it took,” Ms. Wilbert said.

“She took the math test, and she passed,” she said. “So I called her into my office when I had the results. I told her to sit down, but she wouldn’t. ‘Oh my gosh, Miss Pat, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Angelica, I have your results.’

“It just about gave me goose bumps to tell her she had passed. She was so excited, she almost passed out. I screamed and hollered, ‘Don’t fall over!'”

End in sight

Once she had passed the TAAS, the end was in sight. Ms. Vega got through a final English class this spring, then finished her last required class in June: a semester of gym.

With that behind her, Ms. Vega is busy planning her next step: enrolling at El Centro College this fall. She’s not sure yet what she’ll study, although she thinks she might want to be a teacher, or maybe a pediatrician.

But on Friday night, she didn’t need to focus on the future. The present was joyous enough.

“I’m so happy,” she said. “I made it through – that’s all that counts.”