Wichita State Prepares Future Teachers to Work in Multicultural Classrooms Via Community Partnership

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Faced with an increasing number of multicultural, urban students — many of whom are poor or working-class — some schools of education are focusing on teaching the skills that will work best in divergent classrooms. In Wichita, Kan., Wichita State University (WSU) is addressing this demographic shift through a collaborative effort with the surrounding community.

[Above: Ben Smith, a student in Wichita State University’s College of Education, leads a lesson in a Wichita public school.]

A partnership between WSU’s College of Education and Wichita Public Schools trains novice teachers to thrive in urban, multi-ethnic classrooms. The project is especially fitting given the diversity of the Wichita public school system; of 51,133 students enrolled in 2015-2016, 34 percent are Caucasian, 34 percent Latino, 19 percent African American, 8 percent multiracial, and 4 percent Asian.

According to Kathryn Busch, head of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at WSU, the program’s genesis springs from a five-year, $6 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant awarded to the university in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education; WSU’s education department and Wichita Public Schools co-wrote the grant proposal. “We want teachers to be prepared to teach all different kinds of students,” Busch says.

Kathryn Busch
Kathryn Busch

Indeed, it can take school districts some time to adjust to changing demographics. The Latino population in Kansas, for example, has doubled in the last decade, which brought in more ESL — or English as a Second Language — learners, Busch says. In fact, about 18 percent of Wichita’s public school students are ESL learners who collectively speak 80 different languages.

The Department of Education grant enabled WSU’s College of Education to expand and reconfigure courses. It added linguistic classes to help elementary and secondary school teachers teach ESL students. It also led to the introduction of a cultural diversity course to improve future teachers’ cultural sensitivity and competency.

Hands-On Education
The program emphasizes professional development and accentuates learning by doing. Starting in their junior year, education majors at WSU spend a minimum of three hours a week working with small groups to deliver mini lessons in Wichita classrooms. This learning culminates in their senior year with a semester of student teaching.

To identify the most diverse schools, the project targeted 20 of Wichita’s 50 elementary schools and 16 of its 30 secondary schools, where many students are low-income or ESL learners. “[Coordinators also sought out] administrators and faculty who were most interested in participating,” Busch says.

Each participating public school selected a contact teacher for the program who serves as a liaison between the Wichita school system and WSU and mentors emerging teachers and student teachers; this person receives a stipend of $1,000. In some cases, a retired teacher has been hired to serve as a liaison.

The program enables future teachers to “take the theory of knowledge learned in the university and apply it to a school setting,” Busch says. “By the time they start student teaching, they’ve taught in the classroom and co-taught with an experienced teacher, which boosts their confidence and prepares them to manage a classroom.”

One principal of a Wichita high school revealed to Busch that these future teachers learned to customize learning to each student, as well as mastered the invaluable lesson that every student has particular needs that must be addressed.

From the viewpoint of Wichita’s public schools, the project created a “win-win,” according to Tiffinie Irving, executive director of instructional support with Wichita Public Schools. Because the public school system hires several hundred teachers annually, it was able to “train future teachers who attend college and have a voice in training teachers working with students [from] diverse backgrounds,” she says.

Tiffinie Irving
Tiffinie Irving

“[The program] allows us to get to know future teachers much earlier than before. They’re now in the school system for two full years,” Irving says.

Based on their extended experience in the classroom and the tutelage they gain from collaborating with teachers and mentors, she believes these students won’t be intimidated by behavior they may encounter in the classroom.

Demonstrated Knowledge
Being able to see student teachers in action allows those educating them to evaluate whether they have the necessary skills and qualities to succeed in Wichita’s increasingly diverse classrooms. Those who exude enthusiasm and passion — qualities that make for excellent teachers — “can’t fake it,” Irving says.

“You can see this person building relationships with students and families, and [you] know who really wants to be there,” she says. “We can teach curriculum and strategy, but [we] can’t teach you to like people.”

While it wasn’t the intention of the project, a by-product of the initiative has been the hiring by Wichita Public Schools of more minority and male elementary school teachers — an area previously dominated by women.

Irving says she receives many calls from principals urging her to hire particular individuals, afraid of losing highly qualified teachers to suburban districts. “We are able to go in and identify star-quality candidates and make a preemptive offer before they graduate,” she says. “We can hang onto people who we’ve invested two years in and identify those who have the skills to be a great teacher.”

WSU College of Education students working together in class
WSU College of Education students working together in class

Although the original grant ended in 2014, the school system and WSU have continued to collaborate to fund the project, albeit with a reduced budget.

To make this joint program effective required a commitment from the school system and WSU’s College of Education. “The commitment wasn’t just from the central office, but the schools themselves,” Busch says — which she believes made a critical difference.

One of the real tests has been whether teachers recruited from the program will stay in those classrooms. By preparing teachers to handle whatever obstacles they may encounter in Wichita’s public schools, the initiative has improved retention rates — compared with the usual churn and exodus of inner city public school teachers.

“Teachers prepared through the initiative showed a retention rate of 88 percent during their first three years — significantly higher than the national [average],” Busch says, “especially for high-need urban schools.”●

Gary M. Stern is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.