While providing an education to young people in the community beginning this week, the Vermillion School District is also playing a unique role in the teaching of would-be teachers majoring in education at the University of South Dakota.
The local district's involvement with USD will be growing in the coming years, thanks to a revamping of the programs offered by the university's School of Education.
The USD School of Ed is among eight university systems in the three-state region of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota to participate in a redesign of its teacher education program.
This revamping of the university's education program is made possible by the Bush Foundation Inititiative.
"We received a $4 million grant; we're going to get that money spread out over about five years, and that money is going to be used exclusively to redesign the teacher ed program at USD," Rick Melmer, dean of the USD School of Education, recently told members of the Vermillion School Board.
The recruitment of more and higher quality teacher education candidates is one of the goals of the initiative's funding.
"We have about 100 students a year that graduate from our teacher ed program right now. Of that 100 students, we probably have about 60 to 70 that are elementary ed majors, and the rest are secondary ed majors," Melmer said. "We are going to hopefully, over the next five to 10 years, double that number to 200 students, and we hope in addition to that to increase the number of secondary ed students that we have in our teacher ed program.
"We really need more at that level – not that we don't need good elementary teachers, because we do – but at the same time the number of candidates at the secondary level is always less than at the elementary level," he said.
Melmer said in his experience as a school superintendent, he usually would receive 50 applicants for each open elementary teaching position while only receiving five applicants for every secondary teaching position that needed to be filled.
"For the most part, good, quality applicants are hard to come by, so we're going to try to do a better job with that," he said. "We're really going to get a lot more aggressive, and try to encourage young people to think about a career in teaching, because we just simply don't have enough young people looking at that as an option."
Another goal of the Bush grant is to introduce new, more effective ways of preparing university students for teaching career.
"We're looking at four areas where we're going to do that. The first year, we're calling 'Decision to Teach,' where we get the students on campus, and in the old program, we didn't do anything with teacher ed candidates in the first year," Melmer said. "They would take all of their general classes and then move into their teacher ed courses in year two.
"We're going to try to catch them in that first year, and get them into a first year experience course, where we begin to talk to them about the impact that they can have as as an educator," he said. "We want to try to get to the point of watching some of our best teachers from around the state on a video camera, and interacting with those teachers – for example, an elementary teacher in one community and a secondary teacher somewhere else. We're going to be more purposeful about having our people see some of our best teachers right away in their freshman year."
Efforts will be made to have sophomore education students focus more on community issues, Melmer added.
"We want to help our students understand that, while teaching, they are also part of a larger community, and that they need to contribute to and be aware of the services that are available in that community," he said.
Third-year education students at USD will serve an internship where they are in a school setting for 40 to 60 hours, Melmer said.
"They will not only be learning a little about the school; they will also be doing a little bit of teaching, and learning what it is like to be in front of a group of kids in a classroom setting, he said.
The biggest change in USD's teacher education program will be experienced by fourth year students.
"Currently we have a student teaching component that consists of 12 weeks of student teaching. We're shifting that to a full year of student teaching," Melmer said. "We're calling it a residency experience. So students will spend three years on campus, and one year in a school setting."
The full year residency program will be in place in three years, with the current crop of freshmen education majors at USD being the program's first participants when they begin their senior year of study.
"They're going to see how the school year begins, they're going to see how the school year ends, they're going to experience all of the things that teachers go through in a year, including parent-teacher conferences," he added. "They're going to watch and see how a child is quiet in September, and not-so-quiet in March, and how that evolves in the course of a school year."
With the 12-week student teaching period that has been standard for many years, many education students don't get the opportunity to understand the rigors and challenges that teachers experience during the course of a school year, Melmer said.
"We're imbedding course work into that full-year experience," he said. "Students will take courses in classroom management, for example, introduction to technology, and related courses."
USD is looking at four sites that will serve as "hubs" where these changes in teacher education will be introduced: Wagner, Vermillion, Sioux City, IA, and Sioux Falls.
"All of our students are going to be placed in or around those four areas, and we're going to be offering courses during the year in those four areas," Melmer said. "If there are 20 or 30 students in the Vermillion region, they would all come together in Vermillion one day a week and take some courses during that full year experience. We are teaching them while they are on the job learning.
"We're really excited about that, and we think that's going to set our program apart from virtually any other program in the Midwest," he said.
Other advanced programs available to students pursuing degrees in education are included in a new technology high school in Sioux Falls.
"It's a project-based learning high school, and we are partnering with the Sioux Falls district; we are actually helping with the Bush Fund to fund the training that their teachers are going under," Melmer said, "And we're training our faculty members (at USD) as well in the project-based learning format.
"Everything is taught in a project. So, instead of having textbooks and lectures like we're more accustomed to, everything is going to built around creating projects that combine math and science, language arts and social studies," he said. "We're looking at that as a very different way of educating students. Our secondary ed candidates are going to get a chance to rotate through the new technology high school and experience that, and hopefully take some of those characteristics out into their teaching assignments after they graduate."
The USD School of Education goals, Melmer said, include not only recruiting more and higher quality students and preparing them in ways different than in the past. The School of Ed also plans to work in innovative ways with partner school districts, including the Vermillion district.
The students, educators and school district officials that will be involved in the residency program will meet in the spring of the year before the students' residencies begin.
"They're going to make the plan for the (next) school year, understand how the year is going to go, and the communication is going to be much, much better than it has been in the past," Melmer said, "mainly because we have the money through the Bush Grant to pay people to come together."
Another unique change in store that will set USD's School of Education apart from others in the Midwest is the follow-up that will occur after university students graduate and begin their teaching careers.
"Under the current program, when they walk across the stage in the DakotaDome at graduation, we wave goodbye to them," he said, "and nobody really stays in touch with the graduates. We're required under the Bush Grant to stay in touch with our graduates for three years after they receive their diplomas to find out if they are experiencing problems, to learn how we can help them, and we will essentially be putting together a team that will respond to concerns that might exist with our graduates in their first couple years of teaching."
Research has shown, Melmer said, that approximately half of new teachers leave the education field after five years of teaching.
"It's a nationwide statistic," he said. "There are a number of reasons for that. Sometimes students make a bad decision, but many times it's lack of support. They get out of school and they feel alone, they don't feel connected, and they feel no one else is struggling with the problems they are experiencing, so we think the support piece is going to be a tremendous help to us as far as keeping students in the profession."
"We need the Vermillion district to be accessible and available for us. We're placing students in everything from a paired professional experience in their sophomore year to an internship in their junior year to student teaching in their senior year," Melmer said. "Even though we try to place in a lot of districts around the area, one of the first places we look to is Vermillion. We're going to try to be more purposeful as we look down the line of spreading our students around little bit, but push comes to shove, we're still going to need Vermillion to be at the table and help us.
"We hope it's a benefit to the Vermillion district as well, but I think clearly we're the main benefactors of that relationship, and we're grateful," he said.