The Connecticut State Board of Education endorsed a controversial new alternate route for teacher certification run by Relay Graduate School of Education after about two hours of public testimony, most of it opposed to the program.
Relay is a national nonprofit that offers teacher licensure programs in nine states and is currently offering professional development to paraprofessionals and other school staff members in some Connecticut cities including East Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk, Waterbury and Bridgeport.
Norman Atkins, who co-founded Relay and was the founder and former chief executive officer of Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit charter management organization with 46 schools, told the board that about 700 people have gone into teaching through Relay with about 65 to 70 percent still in teaching.
Only one state board member, Erin Benham, who has taught in Meriden public schools for 36 years, voted against the program at Wednesday’s meeting.
Many of those who spoke out against Relay during the board’s public comment period were connected with college and university teacher preparation programs or were students in those programs. Representatives of the state’s teachers unions also voiced strong opposition to Relay.
Robert Hannafin, dean of Fairfield University’s graduate school of education told the board: “Relay is a poorly conceived preparation program, there isn’t even a question about that.” Hannafin said.
“To do this now, is to throw in the towel on our cities. It is admitting that we failed,” Hannafin continued.
“It says loud and clear: You know what? We just don’t have the political will to make things better … We sure won’t invest in bringing the best and brightest teachers here.”
Connecticut state education officials have supported the development of Relay in the state particularly because of its expertise in attracting people of color to its training programs.
While 44 percent of Connecticut’s school children are African American or Hispanic, only 8.3 percent of the state’s teachers are minorities.
Atkins said 70 percent of the teachers who come through its programs nationally are minority. Of the 66 participants in Relay’s professional development programs now underway in some Connecticut cities, 52 are people of color. Now that the state has approved Relay as a teacher certification program, many — perhaps all — of those in the professional development programs are expected to pursue teacher certification.
Atkins said that nationally, the one-year certification program costs about $8,750, but that Connecticut candidates will not be charged that. He said that eventually he expects the out-of-pocket cost for teacher candidates to be about $3,000, though the charge to this year’s participants in the state will only be about $250.
“Our purpose is to develop teachers to be great for kids, particularly for kids in low-income communities,” Atkins said. He noted that the program is “nested” in the schools where the candidates — most of them paraprofessionals or paraeducators who already have bachelor’s degrees — receive classroom experience and mentoring from teachers in the school. The teacher candidates also receive teacher training education one afternoon a week, two to three evenings a month, and on one or two Saturdays a month.
“Our purpose is to develop teachers to be great for kids, particularly for kids in low-income communities,” Atkins said. He noted that the program is “nested” in the schools where the candidates — many of them paraprofessionals, permanent substitutes or office staff who must have bachelor’s degrees already — receive classroom experience and mentoring from teachers in the school. The teacher candidates also have teacher training education on one afternoon a week, two to three evenings a month, and on one or two Saturdays a month.
State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the board that the state has offered alternate routes to certification for 30 years and that alternate routes are not institutions of higher education.
“So becoming approved an [alternate route to certification is not comparable to being approved as an institute of higher education,” Wentzell said.
She said the vast majority of Connecticut teachers will continue to be prepared through traditional programs. “This is not an either, or moment,” she said. “This a both and moment.”
Wentzell said that in addition to needing more minority educators, the state has had persistent shortages of certain teachers.
“If a child has a substitute or a series of substitutes all year for seventh-grade math, what is the likelihood that they can do algebra by eighth grade?” Wentzell asked.
Wentzell emphasized that candidates for Relay’s program already have Bachelor’s degrees and “have been encouraged by districts because of their long service in the classroom with our students in our communities.”
But critics raised many doubts about whether Relay can provide its students with preparation comparable to that received through university programs or through the state’s other alternative certification routes.
Michele Ridolfi O’Neill, the educational issues specialist with the Connecticut Education Association, said that she believes Relay “will create separate classes of teacher candidates, thus further stratifyign our educational system, as Relay graduates’ certification could be seen as being worth less than those obtained through longer, more in-depth teacher preparation programs.”
The board also heard from two long-term substitute teachers and a school secretary who are in Relay’s professional development training now and want to enter its alternative certification program.
Kathryn Arroyo, who is a long-term substitute at Enlightenment School in Waterbury, said she had struggled to find a certification program that would fit into her schedule and is affordable, and she thinks she has found that with Relay.
She said that Relay is now providing her with “a lot of great strategies in the class” and she said the Relay program is the “most inspiring environment I’ve ever been in.”
Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chairwoman of the board, urged the educators and others at the board meeting to “leave with a cooperative spirit.”
“Let’s not be combative. Let’s not leave here with an attitude or spirit of we want them to fail because at the end of day, it is about the children in the state,” Hopkins-Staten said. “It’s been said, but why do we always have to talk about quality when we talk bout diversity? That should not be.The fact that we’re doing that says to me that there’s still a lot more learning that needs to be had”.