Drexel starts program to lessen Philadelphia’s middle school teacher shortage

 Representatives from Drexel and Philadelphia School Partnership celebrate the launch of Dragons Teach Middle Years (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Representatives from Drexel and Philadelphia School Partnership celebrate the launch of Dragons Teach Middle Years (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

With a wary eye toward the shrinking supply of Pennsylvania teachers, Drexel University has started a new program to train more middle school math and science instructors.

Dragons Teach Middle Years (DTMY) has been in development since 2015, but received its official launch Monday with the announcement of a $1.2 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership.

By 2022, DTMY expects to graduate 40 certified middle school teachers each year and funnel them toward Philly schools of all stripes: district, charter, and parochial.

Unlike students in traditional teacher prep programs, DTMY participants won’t major in education. The model allows students to remain in fields such as psychology and English while completing the coursework necessary to earn a teaching certificate in Pennsylvania.

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DTMY also emphasizes in-class training. Participants will spend nearly a year at partner schools in the city serving as teacher-residents. Traditional teacher prep programs don’t require as much in-class learning time.

“These teachers will be trained specifically for the unique challenges of urban classrooms,” said Drexel president John Fry. “And urban classes are tough places to get students to learn.”

TNTP, formerly known as the The New Teacher Project, helped design Drexel’s new program. TNTP is a reform-minded teacher training organization that focuses on preparing educators to work in big cities.

The School District of Philadelphia announced last week it wants to hire 1,000 new teachers this year alone. For years the district has struggled to put a certified, permanent teacher in each of its classrooms. Finding good middle school math and science teachers has been a particular struggle.

“Having a teacher training pipeline focused on our hardest-to-fill areas — which [are] math and science is critical,” said Lou Bellardine, the district’s chief talent officer and former vice president of human resources at Drexel.

Observers assign many potential causes to this recurring shortage. Some say potential teachers eschew Philadelphia because the district and the city’s teachers’ union don’t have a contract. Others point to the district’s relatively late hiring process or the tough task of educating students in a city where more than a quarter of residents live in poverty.

There are also larger trends at work.

In 2010-11, more than 12,000 students completed teacher preparation programs in Pennsylvania. By 2013-14, that number had dropped to 8,555. Those numbers reflect a nationwide dip in the number of people graduating from teacher prep programs.

“We need a program like this that is intentionally designed to fill a specific need, middle school teachers, in a city that doesn’t have enough of them,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership.

DTMY is also part of Drexel’s attempts to, as Fry put it, “be the most civically engaged university in the country.”

“Education is the cornerstone of all of our civic engagement efforts,” he said.

Fry pointed to the school’s adult education initiatives in the surrounding Mantua neighborhood as evidence.

Drexel has also partnered with Science Leadership Academy, a district school that specializes in project-based learning, to create a new middle school on the northern fringe of its West Philadelphia campus. Eventually the Science Leadership Academy Middle School is supposed to co-locate with nearby Samuel Powel Elementary and occupy a new building where the recently closed University City High School once stood.

In addition to its support of the new teacher preparation program, Philadelphia School Partnership also granted Drexel $1.6 million to help start the new middle school. Fry was a founding board member of PSP and served on that body for three years.

PSP’s support for the Dragons Teach Middle Years program will be spread over the program’s first four years and will cover administrative costs. After that incubation period, Drexel will pay for the program through student tuition.

Prior to joining Drexel, Fry worked at the University of Pennsylvania where he helped Penn launch an elementary and middle school in cooperation with the school district. That school, Penn Alexander, has been largely hailed as an academic success.

But keeping schools like Penn Alexander humming — and improving underperforming ones — will require more top-notch teachers. The hope is that folks like Aja Sor will join the effort

The Philadelphia native is in her third year at Drexel. For years she’s entertained the idea of pursuing a law or medical degree. It wasn’t until she heard about DTMY that teaching jumped on her radar.

She’s taking her first education course this semester and has already had to teach two lessons at Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia.

“I loved it,” Sor said with a sheepish laugh. “The first time I was scared. I didn’t want to correct the students because I’m young. I’m only 20.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Samuel Powel School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School are slated to merge. Plans do call for the schools to share a building, but they will maintain separate administrations. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

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