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After funding cuts, SLC schools hope to keep teacher mentoring

First Published      Last Updated Mar 20 2017 11:05 am

Despite success in lowering teacher turnover, funds for the pilot program have been cut by state lawmakers.

Backman Elementary teacher Daniel Mills doesn't mince words about his lack of teaching experience, limited to a year as an assistant educator and two years overseeing gym classes.

"I want to teach," Mills said, "but I have zero knowledge about theory and skills."

Since last fall, he has been in charge of his own fourth-grade classroom through the state's Alternative Routes to Licensure program, which allows teachers to complete on-the-job certification in lieu of a university education program.

He also has the help of 40-year classroom veteran Pat Draper, who mentors Mills as part of the Salt Lake City School District's Peer Assistance Review, or PAR, program.

"It's for me. I love education," Mills said of his career choice. "I'm never going to be rich, but I get to wake up every day and I don't dread going to work."

The school district has benefited from $400,000 in state funding each year to keep PAR running. That funding was cut by state lawmakers last week, putting the mentoring program's future in question — just as some districts are struggling to retain teachers.

A new report by the University of Utah's Education Policy Center found that among the teachers who entered the public education system in 2007, 56 percent were gone by 2014. Younger teachers — age 25 or less — were the most likely to leave the profession, with one out of every five quitting education by their second year.

Mills has a statistical advantage through the PAR program, which launched in 2011. Among the program's first batch of educator, currently in their fifth year, 77 percent are still teaching.

"We don't retain everybody," PAR supervisor Logan Hall said, "because we also help identify teachers who aren't suited for this profession."

Salt Lake school board president Heather Bennett said PAR will likely continue in some form, though not without some painful choices. The school district spends $200,000 of its own money to support PAR and Bennett said school board members are grasping to cover the state's $400,000 share by pulling cash from other key district needs.

"It's our top priority," Bennett said. "We had hoped to be able to expand it, and we probably can't do that."

Getting extra help • Mentoring of novice teachers by veteran educators is relatively common in public schools. But in most cases, mentors have their own classroom duties, limiting the time they can spend helping colleagues.

That less formal in-school mentoring happens in Salt Lake City School District, but PAR provides added support to first-year employees through so-called "consulting teachers" who only work with other educators. The bulk of PAR funding, Hall said, goes to hire additional classroom faculty to fill staffing holes left open by these consultants.

"It allows us to have [mentoring] as their full-time focus," Hall said, "and really spend their time having the flexibility needed to help the teachers."

One of the district's two original consulting teachers, Draper said she is assigned to mentor 14 teachers. She visits each weekly for an hour to 90 minutes, she said, observing classroom instruction, providing feedback and helping set goals.

"The magic is working with teachers who are open and want to do the best that they can," she said.

Draper's feedback helps Mills improve on classroom management and discipline, while making his lessons more engaging and interactive than "drill and kill" lectures from the white board every day.

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