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Ahead of the Class

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 Ahead of the Class

The success of programs to increase the supply of credentialed teachers for difficult-to-staff positions in urban and rural schools depends largely on the candidates selected for participation. In this section, we summarize Pathways programs’ most successful strategies for recruiting and selecting (1) paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers, and (2) returned Peace Corps volunteers. Because the strategies that work for school employees differ somewhat from those successful with RPCVs, we discuss the two separately.

Recruiting and Selecting Program Participants

Recruiting and Selecting Candidates from School Employee Pools

Recruitment and selection of paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers is made easier by their status as employees in the partner district. By using the district’s established channels of communication, the program can readily publicize its existence to potential participants from these two pools. A further advantage is that district and school personnel have some familiarity with potential candidates. Their direct knowledge of applicants makes it easier for the program to gauge candidates’ existing skills and dispositions for teaching the student population of the target district.

Overview of the Recruitment Process

To ensure a large and diverse applicant pool, programs need to publicize information about their existence through a clear dissemination strategy. A practical plan might involve local commercial media as well as public radio’s community bulletin boards and public service announcements. The district can distribute brochures or flyers to the schools, and posters can be displayed at a central location in school buildings. Information may be disseminated through newsletters sent regularly to potential participants, either by the district itself or by the professional unions to which the target employees belong. Announcements through community agencies, such as churches and fraternal organizations, also boost interest in the program. Word of mouth is another useful means of letting people know about program opportunities.

Because principals are a main point of contact between the program and potential participants who are already employed in the schools, their recruitment assistance is critical. Discussing the program at regularly scheduled meetings of principals is an efficient strategy for informing this group and enlisting its active support.

Recruitment is strengthened when the program makes a concerted effort to identify applicants who meet the characteristics sought by the district (e.g., paraprofessionals of minority backgrounds who have two or more years of classroom experience and live in the community served by the schools). Districts’ personnel information systems easily generate lists of qualified candidates. Such lists allow the program to individualize recruitment by sending letters to particular prospects, inviting them to submit applications. Principals can also help identify qualified candidates from among their staff.

Recruitment efforts culminate in a series of sessions or workshops that give detailed information about the program to people from the target pools who have expressed interest. Potential applicants need to understand clearly what the program will offer them. Necessary information includes the type of preparation they will get, the support they will receive while in training, and the financial assistance that will be available.

By the same token, potential candidates need to understand what the program expects of them in return. They need a realistic picture of the time that program-related activities will require—including coursework and meetings. Prospects also need to understand clearly both the schedule and the rigor of required program courses. They need to know if they are expected to teach in the target district for a specified period of time following completion of the program. While the weight of program requirements may discourage some inquirers from actually applying, clearly communicating expectations up front will prevent problems down the road.

Figure 1 summarizes the salient aspects of the recruitment process.

Major Considerations in Recruiting Paraprofessionals and Uncertified Teachers

When planning recruitment activities, consider the following:

The program benefits when district staff is actively involved in recruitment. Because district personnel have easy access to paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers, their involvement in the recruitment process generally enhances the talent pool for the program. By using its information distribution system to publicize the program and its personnel database to identify qualified applicants, the district renders an invaluable recruitment service. School principals can be especially helpful with recruitment. Because they know their staff well, as we said earlier, principals can identify paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers from their schools who are well suited for the program. In brief, district involvement helps facilitate communication between the program and potential applicants. It also sends a clear, strong message to applicants that the district values their investment of time and energy in the program.

A large applicant pool is needed. The ability to select highly qualified candidates requires an applicant pool that is large enough to allow some freedom of choice while still meeting enrollment targets. Thus, the site’s recruitment capability is critical to the overall success of the program. If the number of applications your program receives is small in relation to your enrollment targets, you will need either to adjust those targets or to expand recruitment beyond the original pool.

Tuition assistance must be available. To successfully recruit district employees—especially paraprofessionals—tuition assistance is essential. Paraprofessionals earn barely more than the established minimum wage in this country, and many in this population carry heavy financial responsibilities for their families. Without financial assistance, few would be able to pay for completing their college education. Tuition assistance also functions as an important incentive for uncertified teachers to complete their certification requirements. Because their positions are not secured, especially among those with substitute teacher status, uncertified teachers are often reluctant to take out student loans to pay for required college credits. In section IV, we discuss tuition assistance further.

Recruitment practices change over time. Recruitment strategies should be reviewed often. If your program becomes well known and establishes a large pool of applicants in the first several years of activity, word of mouth becomes a reliable recruitment device. If the applicant pool drops, you may need to expand recruitment beyond the pool initially identified.

Selecting Candidates from the Paraprofessional and Uncertified Teacher Pools

While we found variations in the selection of candidates across the Pathways sites that targeted paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers, an overall pattern emerged. Optimal selection generally occurred in three stages, as shown in figure 2.

Phase 1. This begins after the candidate submits application materials, which usually include the following:

  • Background personal information—employment in the district, teaching experience, minority status, gender, fluency in a language other than English, residency in the target district community.
  • Copies of college or university transcripts.
  • Scores on standardized tests such as Scholastic Assessment Test, American College Test, Preliminary Professional Skills Tests, Miller’s Analogy Test, National Teacher Examination, PRAXIS, or State Basic Skills Test. Some programs have considered test scores optional.
  • Written essays describing the candidate’s interest in teaching, career goals, or past educational or work experiences.
  • Letters of recommendation—from principals and certified teachers in the partner district, as well as from community leaders.

These sources of information are evaluated to determine compliance with criteria for admission into teacher education at the host institution and compliance with other program-specific requirements. Decisions on admission into teacher education are driven largely by a candidate’s potential to complete the program of study. Among the traditional predictors of success that programs consider are grade point average (GPA) and scores on standardized tests.

Successful programs in the Pathways initiative, however, supplement conventional criteria with nontraditional indicators of success that give a fuller picture of applicants’ strengths. Among the supplemental indicators are recommendations from principals, certified experienced teachers, and community leaders; teaching experience; residency in urban or rural communities; commitment to teaching in urban or rural settings; ability to work with others toward productive ends; leadership qualities; and level of maturity.

Program-specific selection requirements more closely reflect the needs and priorities of the partner district. Employment in the target district is a main consideration in most sites targeting paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers. Many of these sites give priority to applicants of minority backgrounds, and some sites specifically seek minority males. Others are interested in candidates who have fluency in languages other than English. Programs offering bachelor’s degrees to paraprofessionals consistently expect at least 60 transferable credits so that participants, who take classes on a part-time basis, can complete the program of study within three years or so.

Phase II. Applicants who pass Phase I are invited to campus for one or more interviews. Interviews require some advance thought. They should be designed to generate a wide range of information about each candidate—personal qualities and dispositions such as self-confidence, maturity, enthusiasm, skills in oral communication and social interactions; involvement in and awareness of the communities served by the target school district; and knowledge of the schooling process.

During this campus visit, some Pathways programs ask applicants to produce on-thespot writing samples on assigned topics. Pathways staff who favor these impromptu exercises claim they are excellent predictors of how applicants will handle coursework and required papers. Some argue that writing samples are better than GPAs for forecasting how the candidate will fare with academic demands—especially for mature applicants who have had no coursework for a time.

Phase III. Selection decisions are made on the basis of what evaluators have learned about applicants during the first two phases. We have found that programs that select applicants who meet established criteria for admission to teacher education are more effective than programs that overlook those criteria. However, successful sites have made exceptions for candidates who were close to meeting set criteria, as long as they had the personal dispositions and commitment sought.

What qualities add up to the kind of "personal disposition" that makes a promising program participant? In the opinion of Pathways program staff, factors that best predict later success in the program include the following:

  • Commitment to teaching—especially in difficult schools
  • Commitment to completing the program
  • Intention to continue teaching in the target district after securing a teaching certificate
  • Evidence of having overcome adversity in the past
  • Leadership skills
  • Maturity

Our evaluation of the Pathways initiative shows that, while participants’ GPAs play an important role in the success of a program, performance in personal interviews and impromptu writing samples (or samples required with formal applications) can tip the balance on marginal applications. Students who interview well and produce good writing samples but lower-than-expected GPAs or test scores have occasionally been admitted to programs provisionally—provided the selection team feels that they show a personal disposition toward teaching.

During the probation of provisional admittees, programs may offer a variety of academic support services to help them perform better in coursework. Availability of adequate services is essential to participants’ success. (Support services are the subject of section IV.)

Responsibility for the selection of program participants must be shared by teacher education and school district staff. Both college/university staff and school district personnel must be actively involved in the selection of program participants. The primary role of representatives of the institution of higher education is to ascertain whether applicants have the academic potential to complete the coursework comprising the teacher education program. They must also decide whether to admit applicants who might fall short of meeting traditional admissions criteria but display other qualities valued highly by members of the partnership. In making these decisions, they must consider whether the academic support services available through the program will be sufficient to enable admittees to succeed.

Because the ultimate goal of these programs is to place graduates in permanent teaching positions, active involvement of partner district staff in the selection of participants is essential. At a minimum, district personnel must give input into the selection criteria. It is also advisable that both district staff and principals from partnership schools participate in the screening, interviewing, and selection of candidates. District staff and principals at the Pathways sites reported that when they play a prominent role in selecting program participants, they develop a strong incentive to hire graduates later on to fill teaching vacancies.

Recruiting and Selecting from the Pool of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

The recruitment and selection of candidates from outside the partner school district expands the talent pool from which to fill teaching vacancies. This expansion, however, presents an initial obstacle to programs. Because recruits must be placed in full-time teaching positions while they complete the program of study, considerable effort is required to coordinate the placement of these candidates in teaching positions with their recruitment and selection for the program. This section describes strategies that have been successful with one particular external pool—returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Essentials in Recruiting Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

Recruitment is in some sense far easier with RPCVs because the Peace Corps has a tightknit communication system of country directors and direct access to volunteers in the field as they are considering post-Corps career decisions. The Peace Corps/USA Fellows Program in Washington, D.C., coordinates the 14 RPCVs programs that are part of the Pathways initiative.

Several RPCVs sites in the Pathways initiative have supplemented the central recruitment mechanism available through the PC/USA Fellows Program with a strategy of sending information about their own local programs directly to country directors of the Corps. To assist with this aspect of recruitment—which in Pathways sites is conducted by the partner teacher education institution—the program will need to prepare an information packet including a description of the course of study and support services offered, a description of the partnering district and its job opportunities, and application materials.

As the program matures and alumni spread the news, word-of-mouth recruitment also becomes a possibility. Pathways programs have found it useful to encourage potential recruits to contact enrolled RPCVs to learn more before they apply.

The major factor that contributes to a sometimes uneven flow of applications from RPCVs is the individual program’s ability to place recruits in full-time teaching positions upon admission into the program. Uncertainties surrounding student enrollments and budgets for the coming school year often prevent districts from making an early commitment to place candidates. Programs unable to make this commitment are apt to experience difficulties with recruitment.

Thus, the success of an individual program in attracting RPCVs may be tied even more tightly than recruitment of school district employees to a close working partnership between the school district and the teacher education institution. When a tight collaboration exists and teaching vacancies are abundant, sites have little difficulty attracting applicants.

Selecting Candidates from among Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

Pathways programs have used two approaches to select candidates from the RPCV population. These approaches are distinguished by whether applicants are chosen for the program before or after they have been hired as emergency-certified teachers by school districts.

Approach 1: Choosing participants for the program before they have been hired as teachers. The phases of this selection approach are shown in figure 3.

This approach works best when teaching vacancies abound in the partnering district and the program is in a state that has streamlined procedures for awarding emergency teaching certificates. Direct involvement of school district personnel in the selection process typically results in teaching contracts for those admitted into the program. While Pathways sites using this selection approach have been largely successful in helping participants obtain teacher placements, the uncertainty of Phase III is challenging for many of them.

Approach 2: Selecting participants only after they secure teaching positions in the target district. Three phases also comprise this approach, shown in figure 4.

This approach works best in states where the process of acquiring emergency teaching certificates is complex, often requiring applicants to pass certain tests. This approach may also work better if the school district involved in the partnership has few teacher slots available.

Regardless of selection approach, the placement of candidates in full-time teaching positions is a major challenge for programs to overcome at the outset. Placement difficulties may be solved in part by paying more attention to returned volunteers’ interests or preparation in subject areas of highest demand in the partner school districts; here, as in selection of school-employee candidates, the direct involvement of school principals and district staff in selection decisions is a must.

Program developers who are targeting groups similar in profile to RPCVs might wish to adapt the suggestions above to their specific target populations, although many of the recommendations apply to several non-school-employee groups.

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