For many students majoring in education at Ball State University, thinking about teaching in an urban elementary school conjures up images of unruly students, apathetic parents and old, rundown buildings.
These and other similarly negative perceptions are generally inaccurate, say BSU educators, but they are gathered in surveys conducted each year.
So the BSU Urban Semester Program places students in an Indianapolis Public School for 16 weeks in the hope they acquire more positive-and accurate-images.
"We find students have horrible pictures of what an urban school is," said Ann Leitze, a mathematics education professor who directs part of the program. "We have to dispel images that are partly put in their minds by Hollywood."
And a study of the program published this month in the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, plus a follow-up survey of graduates, shows the program is dispelling misconceptions and creating a cadre of better-equipped urban teachers.
The program was started in 1997 by Susan Johnson, associate dean in the Col lege of Sciences and Humanities, and Bonnie Lynch, a former BSU educator. In addition to the elementary school component, separate groups participate in similar fieldwork at Shortridge Middle School and Broad Ripple High School.
Leitze directs the program's elementary component. She and four other professors are on site at the elementary schools with the pre-service teachers, who also complete their other coursework there during the day.
To a large extent, the university's own demographics sparked interest in creating the program.
Most of the students come from the northeast quadrant of Indiana, Leitze said. "And they're primarily white, particularly in education. We realized the need for well-qualified urban teachers and felt Ball State needed to be a leader in that area." Of the 30 students this year, 29 are white and one is Asian. They are all women, although the program has previously attracted a few male students.
The students are split between two IPS elementary schools-George H. Fisher School 93 and T.C. Steele School 98.
Reasons for opting into a program that generates more work than a semester spent in the laboratory classroom in Muncie vary. But all students realize the importance of understanding that students of different cultures need to be taught differently.
"Since I want to teach in an urban school, I know I [need to] be prepared for the cultural differences that I'll learn about in this program," said Tabitha Shearer, a Danville native who is assigned to a kindergarten class at Fisher that began Aug. 18.
Going through the Danville school system likely didn't prepare her for issues she expects to face, she said.
Among Shearer's 20 students-all but one who are black-were children who had not had breakfast that morning, phrased everyday questions in unfamiliar ways, and displayed mannerisms she was unaccustomed to.
"It'll be a challenge," she said. "I'm a little nervous, but excited, too. I hope to learn how to create a more culturally diverse classroom. Most important, I'll be more aware of it."
If a study conducted by Eva Zygmunt-Fullwalk, assistant professor of elementary education at BSU, is any indication, Shearer will get even more out of the program than she expects.
Zygmunt-Fullwalk studied the program during the fall of 2002. Using a comparison group of education majors on the Muncie campus, she evaluated attitudes related to working with diverse populations of children.
At the start of the semester, attitudes of both groups were almost identical, she said. Like the students who take Leitze's annual survey, most held negative, stereotypical views of children living rough lives, being undisciplined and poor, and performing below average academically.
While the comparison group's attitudes improved slightly over the semester, the urban group's improved significantly.
"The perception transformation that goes on through the semester for those in the urban program was very powerful," Zygmunt-Fullwalk said.
But it wasn't enough to check the attitudes at semester end, she said. She expected to see a change immediately after being immersed in an urban setting for 16 weeks. So, surveys were administered again eight weeks later, and while the scores didn't go up as much as she hoped, they didn't drop as other research would suggest, she said.
In her research, Zygmunt-Fullwalk found that a handful of other universities offer similar programs. An Indiana University program places student teachers on an American Indian reservation in the Southwest and a University of Minnesota program takes students to a Hispanic school in Texas.
Both those programs serve as the required student teaching component; BSU's is optional and completed before student teaching.
"We wanted to get at them earlier to prepare them better," Leitze said.
Perhaps the best measure of the program's success, which has won two national awards, is looking at where students are now.
While the program does not keep tabs on the pre-service teachers after graduation, some stay in touch with Leitze.
Kelly Davis participated in the program two years ago. She is now teaching fourth grade at T.C. Steele School 98.
Davis grew up in Indianapolis, so she thinks she started with a more positive attitude because she attended IPS.
"A lot of people who go into the urban semester think the kids will be rough, out of control," she said. "I went in knowing not all students are like that. Students are students; it's the teachers that make them successful."
So, while she felt prepared for the cultural differences, Davis said the experience was invaluable. In addition to providing her with specific teaching methods, she's sure the confidence she gained with the extra semester teaching showed through when she interviewed for the job.
"Nothing prepares you for the classroom other than being in the classroom," Davis said.