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Program preps students to teach at high-need schools

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Leigh Stevenson and Lindsey Brooks are among 45 college graduates and career changers being trained throughout Indiana this summer to teach science and math at some of the state's highest-need high schools and middle schools.

They understand it will be a challenge.

"With chemistry, a lot of the concepts are abstract," says Stevenson, a New Castle High School graduate who earned a biochemistry degree from Ball State University this year. "You're learning about atoms, which you can't see, and there's a lot of math thrown in."

Brooks, a Wapahani High School graduate who earned a biology degree from Ball State in 2009, said, "Let's be honest; students typically are not interested whatsoever in any science or technology field. The topic of genetics is typically taught with fruit flies and peas. Students are just sitting in class not relating to it."

Forty-five Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows are attending specially designed, cutting-edge master's degree programs at Ball State, IUPUI, Purdue University, the University of Indianapolis and Valparaiso University, The Star Press of Muncie reported.

The year-long program includes co-teaching at high-need secondary schools, after which the fellows agree to teach in those same schools for three years. Each fellow has been awarded $30,000 for tuition and other expenses.

"If the topic involves themselves or food, teens will get interested," Brooks said. "Why do they have brown hair or blue eyes? Are their earlobes attached? Instead of being lectured at about fruit flies, they can use their own genetics to relate the subject to everyday life. Genetically modified fruits and vegetables are a hot topic right now."

After their education on college campuses this summer, the fellows will learn to teach this fall and next spring in real classrooms in high-need school districts including Muncie, Anderson, Indianapolis, Gary, East Chicago, Fort Wayne, Decatur, Michigan City, Portage and the Purdue University Rural Schools Network.

"The schools they teach in have more free/reduced lunch students, more English language learners, more diverse populations and more special needs students," said Beverly Sanford, spokeswoman for the not-for-profit Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Princeton, N.J.

Since launching in Indiana in 2009, the teaching fellowship primarily has been funded with more than $15 million in grants from the Lilly Endowment.. The state is taking over funding and leadership of the program. To date, 298 fellows have been named in the Indiana program, which is spreading to other states.

The goals are to prepare secondary school students to contribute and thrive in a knowledge-based, global, digital economy and workforce; to attract the very best candidates to teaching; to put strong teachers into high-need schools; to cut teacher attrition and retain top teachers; and to transform university-based education.

Among the first class of fellows to complete their three-year commitment to teach, 80 percent have agreed to stay on for a fourth year, "which is as far in the pipeline as we've gotten to date," Sanford told The Star Press. That compares to national rates of 50 percent or less in high-needs schools after the three-year mark.

"Teacher retention tends to be trickier at high-need schools in general," Sanford said. "Sometimes it's about infrastructure — lack of supplies or equipment, or tough conditions. Sometimes it's about school leadership, as high-need schools may have difficulty finding and retaining skillful leaders. The students fellows teach, when they first meet them, are further behind academically than students in comparable schools."

The 10 students currently enrolled as fellows at Ball State range from recent college graduates to thirty-somethings, including career changers.

Stevenson, one of the recent college grads, started her undergrad career at Ball State as an architecture major. "I found out that was not for me," she said, so the daughter of a doctor and nurse switched to biochemistry. She was not interested in a medical career. Working in college as a tutor got her interested in teaching.

Brooks is one of the career changers. She couldn't find a job as a biologist after finishing at BSU in 2009, and found herself grooming pets at PetSmart. She also has been a botany lab assistant, an independent study researcher in Costa Rica and Belize, and a volunteer at Oakhurst Gardens.

"It's important to learn STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) concepts," Brooks said. "The best way to succeed after high school, even if you have a factory job, you still have to know math and some basic chemistry. A hairdresser mixing colors to color hair, that's chemistry. A construction worker figuring out how long a board needs to be, that's math. I feel like we just don't want to give up on them. I want to help inspire them in the sciences just like I was by my own teachers."

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