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Business Is Booming for Career Switcher Programs That Train Teachers

The high unemployment rate has provided an unexpected boon for the nation's public schools: legions of career-switchers eager to become teachers.

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

The high unemployment rate has provided an unexpected boon for the nation's public schools: legions of career-switchers eager to become teachers.

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Across the country, interest in teacher preparation programs geared toward job-changers is rising sharply. Applications to a national retraining program based in 20 cities rose 30 percent this year. Enrollment in a career-switcher program for teachers at Virginia's community colleges increased by 20 percent. And a Prince George's County resident teacher program increased enrollment by 40 percent.

In many places, there are more converts to teaching than there are jobs, except in hard-to-fill posts in science, math and special education classes. But the wave of applicants might ease teacher shortages expected to develop as 1.7 million baby boomers retire from the public schools during the next decade.

The newcomers come with a host of unknowns, including how much training they will need before they can handle a classroom full of rowdy or reluctant students and whether they are likely to stay in a profession that is struggling with low retention rates.

About one-third of new teachers graduate from 600 so-called alternative certification programs developed to bring people with no education background into classrooms. The programs vary widely, including two-year graduate degrees and online courses. President Obama (D) is proposing to devote more than $100 million in his 2010 budget to programs that recruit and train skilled mid-career professionals, particularly in poor schools and math and science classes.

Some alternative programs have proven to be "excellent recruitment engines," said Sharon Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. But training must continue to be retooled, she said, so new teachers are not put "in the deep end of the pool" right away. "It's not fair to them and certainly not fair to the students they encounter," she said.

Career-changers are considered desirable because they bring maturity and outside experiences into classrooms. They also help solve a perennial problem in public education, particularly in math and science: Too few teachers have a solid grasp of the subject they teach.

Sam Rigby, a scientist with three degrees, is among the latest recruits. The 36-year-old District native studied minerals in a Portland laboratory and scoured volcanic rocks on the Pacific Ocean floor as a research scientist. This summer, after a five-week intensive course, Rigby will reinvent himself as a physical science teacher at Charles Hart Middle School, a Congress Heights school undergoing a major overhaul because of chronic low performance and discipline problems.

The educational and economic disparities in the District "always gnawed at me," Rigby said. "I thought, 'What can I do to help?' "

His $45,000 starting pay is a slight raise from his most recent job at a nonprofit agency and a bigger increase from unemployment checks he briefly received. Some of his colleagues have left much higher-paying jobs to teach.

The New Teacher Project, founded 12 years ago by Michelle A. Rhee, now the D.C. schools chancellor, oversees Teaching Fellows programs such as the one Rigby is in. The programs were established to eliminate the achievement gap by recruiting career-changers and college graduates to work in inner-city schools. Applications to the local program are up 80 percent over last year.

Like Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates in urban schools and had a 40 percent increase in applications this year, the Teaching Fellows program moves new teachers into classrooms quickly and provides mentors and training on the job.


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