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Saint Louis University builds teacher pipeline for urban schools

St. Louis Public Radio file photo

Saint Louis University’s School of Education is launching a new teacher training program this week that’s specifically designed for urban education.

The Urban Education Learning Collaborative is small, for now. Just six students will work intensely in the Jennings School District for the next two years.  But Saint Louis University Education Professor, Alex Cuenca, said the hope is to expand to 40 students who will spend all four years working in the same urban school. 

“Because to us the formation of the educator isn’t about simply giving them tools and techniques, it’s about forming the person,” Cuenca said.  “Especially in high poverty settings with situations that are challenging.”

Cuenca said the program and similar efforts to tailor teacher training for urban and under-resourced schools could help address disparities in discipline and narrow the persistent achievement gap between minority and white students.     

“We want someone who has committed four years through a teacher training program because we have a better shot of hanging on to them and urban school districts and being committed to those settings and those children,” Cuenca said.   

The program will ultimately have four tracks for teacher certification: early childhood, elementary, middle school and high school.   Classroom lessons will also be focused specifically toward urban schools with mostly minority student populations.  Topics will include urban youth development, leadership in urban schools and research-based teaching methods. 

“As we serve the whole child and interrupt the cycle of poverty by helping families create new positive narratives, partnering with Saint Louis University for teacher preparation in urban schools is a powerful next step to ensure together we are effectively training future urban educators,” said Jennings Superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, in a written statement on the program.  

Future partners will include Grand Center Arts Academy and City Garden Montessori, both of which are charter schools sponsored by Saint Louis University.   

Listen to an extended interview with Cuenca about the new teacher training program. 

Below some are highlights edited for length and clarity. 

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Alexander Cuenca, Saint Louis University education professor

  On why the program was created

“It’s an intentional effort to train teachers specifically for urban settings.  The generic theory for teacher education is that we can place any student through a curriculum of four years and then they can teach in any of the possible contexts for schooling wherever it occurs: rural, urban, suburban, private and charter.  That idea to us is fundamentally flawed. There are unique needs and challenges for all different types of districts.  And because we’re in the middle of St. Louis and because we serve an urban population, we’ve decided to create program that’s specifically tailored for the needs of urban schools.”

On what makes the program unique

“The idea of a partnership with a school district in not unique in and of itself.  What I would argue is unique is how much control we’d like to give the Jennings School District in the training of teachers. It’s not done in isolation.   I think a lot of teacher training and models use school districts as spaces where (students) can practice teaching, but don’t give the district any creative control or influence in how those teachers are trained based on their understanding of education.  So what we do in this program is collaborate with the Jennings School District from the very beginning…The students are having a constant conversation with teachers, they’re having a constant conversation with the superintendent and central administration staff -- to give them an understanding of how a district works from top to bottom.”

On building cultural awareness for future teachers, especially as it relates to working in a majority African American school district with a high level of poverty

“Saint Louis University isn’t unique in that (students) in our classrooms are mostly white.  You add the layer of class at Saint Louis University, which is a Jesuit university that generally has (wealthier students)…To me that’s why it’s important to get students into the community to interrogate themselves, to ask questions about their own cultural misunderstandings and blind spots.  To give them type of experiences they’ll encounter once they’re first time classroom teachers themselves.”

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