ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Program preps 'apples' for teacher excellence
by Linda Dawson
Linda Dawson is IASB director of editorial services and Journal editor.
What do you want to be when you grow up?" At an early age, a child may answer "ballerina," "policeman," "football player" or "mommy."
When the same question is rephrased in college ("What do you plan to do with your degree?"), those who don't know may think … "Hmmm … well, I could teach, couldn't I?" And a counselor may be just as agreeable and start penciling in the education courses needed to complete that degree and put the student in front of a classroom.
But choosing to teach without having a clue as to what that career really entails may not produce the highly qualified teachers schools need to advance student achievement.
The same is true of teacher preparation programs that leave classroom teaching experience until the last semester. How many second semester seniors have found themselves in front of a class, wondering, "What am I doing here? Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life … or even for the next hour?"
For James Garcia of Springfield, a second semester senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that's not going to be a problem. After his graduation in May with a major in history and minor in secondary education, he knows exactly where he wants to be … in a classroom teaching. And he knows he has the skills and background to be a good teacher right from the start.
That's because Garcia is a Golden Apple Scholar. He spent time teaching in classrooms even before he stepped foot in a college class. He's ready to teach in every sense of the word.
Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois, a program that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was an outgrowth of the Golden Apple Award for Teaching and Excellence program in Chicago that began recognizing teachers for excellence in the classroom in 1986. From a mere 15 students in Chicago when it began, the program has grown to about 900 scholars throughout Illinois in 2005.
"The program was originally begun to address a lack of minority teachers in the classroom," said Patricia N. Kilduff, Scholars program assistant director in charge of recruitment and placement. Currently, the scholars are approximately 60 percent minority students and 57 percent low-income.
How it works
To participate, students must be nominated either by a teacher, counselor, principal or other adult non-family member and then must go through an application process that includes biographical information, transcript, ACT score, personal essays and three letters of recommendation. This year, Kilduff said, of the 1,500 Illinois students nominated, 350 completed the application process. Of that number, 250 will be interviewed and 125 will be chosen for the "Class of 2008," as they will be known from there on.
Each selected participant receives a scholarship of $2,500 per year for four years, payable directly to one of the 53 partnering colleges and universities in Illinois. Students must maintain at least a 2.0 grade average as a freshman and 2.5 every year after that to continue with the program.
While the scholarship money is important, the lessons learned and the experience gained is even more valuable to participants.
Garcia says he remembers writing at least seven essays in order to earn his spot as a Golden Apples Scholar, an investment of time that he knows now is ready to pay off. As a scholar, he started teaching the summer right after he graduated from high school.
"The main tenet of the Golden Apple Scholars program is its summer institute," Garcia said.
The first two summers, scholars spend six weeks at DePaul University in Chicago, teaching in the mornings at Chicago Public Schools' summer school and attending classes taught by Golden Apple Fellows in the afternoon. One summer, he said, is spent teaching in a high school; the other summer is either at an elementary or middle school.
By the end of their sophomore year in college, scholars should have a good idea at which grade level they would like to teach. For Garcia, his decision was high school.
And while the classes they take from the Fellows are not graded, it does give the scholars a chance to learn about subjects and special interests that they might not have time to take during the regular school year — like school law for Garcia.
"The third summer, we go out on our own to teach, like at a camp," he said. They receive $2,000 as reimbursement for working during the summer if they spend the time away from home, or half that amount if they stay at home and teach in a local school or camp.
Garcia spent his third summer at North Central College involved in a program known as "Junior Senior Scholars."
"It is a summer internship where you work with kids from North Lawndale in inner-city Chicago as well as from East Aurora," he said.
The students, who ranged in age from first graders to incoming seniors, attended the camp for free and were bused in each day. Garcia was in charge of a group of nine boys going into ninth grade.
"I was given a loose curriculum," he said. "They were to read three novels in six weeks, and I was told to teach them on a theme of 'Mission Possible: Earth.' Being a social studies teacher, I taught about the history of oil and about the geography of the Middle East."
The fourth summer, right before they do their actual student teaching, he said, scholars spend four weeks at Elmhurst College in what a Golden Apple presentation bills as "an intensive residential program … tailored to prepare them for student teaching and job placement."
"We don't work with kids, but we spend time every day in seminars and workshops," Garcia said. "I was able to gather thousands of pages of materials that will help me with my own teaching, once I'm in a classroom."
One of the best packets of information he said he received was one on multiple intelligences. In another class, he received assignment suggestions and reading activities to use in his future classroom.
"This is really a teacher preparation program," he stressed.
While the program is intensive and extensive, some of the little things Garcia said he learned may end up being just as beneficial. A gang violence class helped him learn about the nature of modern gangs and what teachers can do about it. Another session on drum circles proved beneficial when he taught third-graders how to count syllables using rhythm.
Last summer, Garcia participated in a mock interview with a principal. "It was a high-pressure situation where we had to handle ourselves professionally and were put to the test," he said. "Through this, I gained more confidence and feel better about my ability to interview."
Now that he is graduating in May, Garcia is looking for a teaching position in a school that will fulfill his requirement to teach in a "school of need" for at least five of the next eight years. He has a map with pins to mark possible teaching locations and is turning in applications and readying his letters of recommendation.
When August rolls around, one thing is certain: James Garcia will be at the front of a class, ready to teach and with the knowledge that he is well-prepared to handle the challenges he will face.
For more information about the Golden Apple Scholars program, visit http://www.goldenapple.org/scholars.htm.
Golden Apple expands to Central Illinois
A gala celebration is set for June 7 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, and no one will be more excited or proud than Debra Boros Erickson, director of Golden Apple Central Illinois.
The June gala marks the first year of expansion of a well-known Chicago-area teacher recognition program into 18 counties in Central Illinois.
The Golden Apple program began in 1985, Erickson said, after the U.S. Department of Education called Chicago schools the worst in the nation. That's when Martin J. "Mike" Koldyke, a former third-grade teacher and later the chairman of a Chicago investment firm, got together with two business friends and established the Golden Apple Award for Teaching and Excellence.
That first year, brochures went out, applications were accepted and a selection committee narrowed the group to 30 nominees, all of whom were observed in their classrooms before the initial 10 teachers were recognized as the first Golden Apple Teacher Academy. Each of the recipients received a scholarship from Northwestern University, a cash prize and a computer.
Much of the reason for expansion into Central Illinois, Erickson said, came because so many in the scholars program — like James Garcia from Springfield — are from Central Illinois.
In its first year, the off-shoot program drew 600 nominees. Once those nominations are narrowed, classroom visits will be scheduled for mid-April and then the 10 recipients will be announced at the June 7 gala.
"We began with the same model," Erickson said, "but we expect to evolve as more Central Illinois teachers are involved."
According to an organizational brochure, the Golden Apple Academy, as recipients are known, "has directly helped more than 5,000 Illinois teachers become more effective in the classroom and it indirectly helps tens of thousands of others."
While a program with the same name and a similar model exists in the Rockford area, Erickson said, it is not actually part of the same partnership as the original Golden Apple in Chicago or the new Central Illinois branch.
Counties in the new Golden Apple Central Illinois are: Champaign, Christian, Coles, Dewitt, Douglas, Edgar, Ford, Livingston, Logan, Macon, McLean, Morgan, Moultrie, Peoria, Piatt, Sangamon, Tazewell and Vermillion.
For more information about the Golden Apple Awards for Teaching and Excellence, visit http://www.goldenapple.org/.
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