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School of Teacher Education adds clinical model program

More than 40 WKU students participating in Hilltopper Teacher Preparatory Academy at 3 Bowling Green elementary schools

Transforming teacher preparation programs into clinical models that fully prepare teacher candidates and provide exemplary, learner-ready teachers to schools is the mission of a team of WKU’s School of Teacher Education (STE) faculty and their Bowling Green Independent Schools partners.

Encouraged by the success of STE’s Clinical Experiences and Practices in Teaching (CEPT) high school clinical model for secondary education English and Social Studies majors, STE Director and College of Education and Behavioral Sciences Associate Dean Sylvia Dietrich and her team have orchestrated another highly successful clinical model program. The Hilltopper Teacher Preparatory Academy, called TopPrep, prepares teacher candidates in the areas of special education and elementary education. TopPrep’s hallmarks are its strong clinically based partnerships and content integration.

Katie Eaton of Island is one of more than 40 WKU teacher candidates who are participating in the TopPrep program this spring.

Katie Eaton of Island is one of more than 40 WKU teacher candidates who are participating in the TopPrep program this spring.

During the spring 2016 semester, more than 40 WKU teacher candidates are working in three Bowling Green Independent elementary schools alongside their WKU instructors and elementary school adjunct faculty. This cohort of teacher candidates, the first for WKU’s new Special Education/Elementary Education degree, are experiencing “an exciting new initiative in how we train teacher candidates,” said Pete Hoechner, STE and TopPrep adjunct faculty in Special Education. “The collaboration between the WKU literacy and special education programs allows students to learn from a strategist and content specialist so our teacher candidates will walk into the classroom with both skill sets.”

Superintendent Gary Fields of Bowling Green Independent Schools, who was instrumental in welcoming STE’s first clinical model program to Bowling Green High School, believes that “embedding teacher candidates in schools and authentic classrooms being led by experienced teachers who demonstrate the skills and dispositions needed to help children achieve academic success is a winning situation. We understand that working as a coaching and mentoring team—BGISD teachers and STE faculty—is the most effective way to prepare teachers.”

At Dishman-McGinnis, Parker-Bennett-Curry and T.C. Cherry elementary schools, principals and more than 30 teachers who work with TopPrep recognize the benefits of a clinical model program.

Arielle McKinney of Bowling Green is participating in the Hilltopper Teacher Preparatory Academy.

Arielle McKinney of Bowling Green is participating in the Hilltopper Teacher Preparatory Academy.

Michael Wix, principal of Dishman-McGinnis Elementary School, noted the strong relationship between the participants and said the teacher candidates “are contributing to the learning going on in the classroom and…they are learning the skills they need to be successful professionals.”

Lauren Coffey, teacher at T.C. Cherry Elementary School, said: “What I like best about the TopPrep program is that it is creating a sustainable relationship.”

Assistant Professor in Special Education Christina Noel calls TopPrep a “great partnership” and is “impressed with the teacher candidates and how well they have been integrated into their school and classroom placements.”

A key factor in the creation of TopPrep began with the need for teacher candidates to develop their practice by learning and working in a rich, authentic school environment in which candidates work with real children, teachers, administrators and parents. The elementary schools chosen for TopPrep provide those all-important and necessary spaces for teacher candidates. Since TopPrep focuses on the critical areas of literacy and special education, selecting, pairing and integrating content courses in those fields has been essential for TopPrep’s success.

Assistant Professor in Literacy Melissa Pendleton said she has “learned a lot about special education through this model…[to] better align literacy content with what students will need across the program.”

“Taking this content and weaving it together has been useful for the students,” Pendleton said. “They are picking up on how both constructs are incorporated through everything they do.”

Teacher candidates, too, understand the value of combining elementary education and special education into a single degree program. According to Molly Marshall, a TopPrep teacher candidate from Morganfield, “TopPrep has been the ultimate experience for a teacher candidate that has interests in both elementary education and special education. I believe that is the key to bridging the gap between general education and special education teachers.”

Teacher candidates reap the benefits of a clinical model like TopPrep because both the quality and quantity of their undergraduate teaching experiences are much improved from more traditional teacher preparation programs.

TopPrep's clinical experiences are important for WKU teacher candidates like Summer Renick of Alvaton.

TopPrep’s clinical experiences are important for WKU teacher candidates like Summer Renick of Alvaton.

“Being embedded in a school for one to two days each week provides opportunities for teacher candidates that can’t be replicated in more traditional models in which candidates’ experiences are highly variable and piecemeal depending on factors such as their individual school and teacher placements,” said Cassie Zippay, Director of Clinical Model Programs. “With TopPrep, we are all one team that works together to provide an immersed experience for teacher candidates. This rich experience benefits everyone involved, from university instructors, classroom teachers, teacher candidates, to children.”

Many of the comments TopPrep teacher candidates make attest to the importance of having clinical experiences.

Madison Loy, TopPrep teacher candidate from Russell Springs, said she has “been pleasantly surprised with how much the adjunct faculty [elementary school teachers] has let us interact and work with students.”

“The TopPrep program is the best way to train future educators,” Riley Robinson of Morganfield said. “This program allows me, a future educator, to take the knowledge and skills that I have learned about and implement them in the real-life setting. Through my experiences so far, I have found that simply learning and reading about topics isn’t enough. [This] program has allowed me to gain knowledge and skills that can’t be read about or taught in the traditional classroom. [Future] teachers need real life experiences just like [future] nurses do in the clinical setting. The more practice the better.”

Another TopPrep teacher candidate Georgia Childers of Campbellsville adds that other benefits of the authentic clinical experience include immediate “feedback on how to improve.”

“TopPrep has given me the opportunity to learn how to collect data in a meaningful way that will benefit my future students’ progress,” Tony Morrison of Bowling Green said.

Casey Garrett, TopPrep teacher candidate from Crestwood, said: “I like being able to learn something and then immediately apply it.”

Echoing that comment, David Filiatreau of Bloomfield, another teacher candidate, noted, “in regular education classes [we] learn the material; in TopPrep [we] experience it.”

Britney Fightmaster of Independence works with a student during the TopPrep program.

Britney Fightmaster of Independence works with a student during the TopPrep program.

Or, as Britney Fightmaster of Independence added, “I am no longer sitting in the back of the class, watching a class and their teacher; I am now part of the class and experiencing the career I chose.”

With an eye to their futures, these teacher candidates realize that when they step through the doors of their school in the morning before the school day begins until they leave at the end of the day, they are on a job interview. As Kaitlin Woodrow of Mount Washington said, “there is a lot of rigor in the program which is beneficial because as a future educator [we] will be expected to go above and beyond.”

“Education is about making connections to real-life experiences,” teacher candidate Lauren Tucker of Owensboro said. “TopPrep has done that for me. This program has taken everything I’ve learned throughout my education courses and given it life. Combining typical instruction and hands-on practice in classrooms has impacted my journey to becoming a teacher in ways that I do not even know yet.”

Summing up the TopPrep experience from her perspective as an instructor, Sue Keesey, assistant professor in Special Education, said: “TopPrep provides the opportunity for our teacher candidates to work one-on-one with a struggling student for the complete semester and the gains we’ve witnessed are truly amazing. Teacher candidates learn to provide effective instruction that results in student learning gains that far exceed their expectations while the elementary students are empowered with the realization of how much they are capable of. Everyone involved gains from this experience. This is how we bridge the learning gap!”

Dietrich, STE Director, said: “WKU’s School of Teacher Education clinical model programs stand out as leading models for our Commonwealth as we prepare teachers who are capable of transforming the lives of the children they teach. Closing achievement gaps among children in our schools is a critical and complex endeavor, and we are confident that successful TopPrep prepared teachers will embody the skills needed to help all kids succeed to a high level.”

WKU TopPrep faculty includes Susan Keesey and Christina Noel, assistant professors in Special Education and Pete Hoechner, instructor in Special Education. They are partnering with Melissa Pendleton, assistant professor in Literacy, and Rachel Leer, instructor in Literacy. Completing the STE portion of the TopPrep team is Andrea Paganelli, assistant professor in Library Media Education.

Contact: Andrea Ford, (270) 745-6249

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