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Aldine ISD Director of Human Resources Jeff McCanna (center) visits with potential Aldine recruits in career fairs across the state and says Texas A&M teachers are prized for their well-rounded preparation and dedication to both both job and people. (Photo by Billy Smith II / ©Houston Chronicle. Used with permission.)

COLLEGE STATION --

Which comes first, experience or a job? And how does one get the former without having the latter?

A novel partnership between Texas A&M University and Aldine Independent School District in Houston is helping to insure that Aggie teachers enter their chosen profession with both, thanks to a unique approach to pre-service fieldwork that is delivering on its promise of beneficial educational lessons for participants as well as the institutions involved.

For the past few years, upper-level elementary and middle school education majors in the Texas A&M Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture have been arriving at Aldine ISD campuses by the busload each semester to learn firsthand just how instruction and learning happen within a challenging urban environment situated smack-dab in one of the poorest and most diverse sectors of the nation's fourth-largest city.

"We're an urban school north of Houston with neighborhood challenges," said Jeff McCanna, director of human resources at Aldine ISD. "Our student body is 70 percent Latino/Hispanic and 26 percent African American. However, our challenge has never been ethnicity; rather, socio-economics. Many of our students are raised by single mothers in economically disadvantaged circumstances. Our teachers and staff members are the only folks some of these students have. In most areas of the United States, these kids aren't as successful, but we've been able to address and overcome those odds."

Senior mathematics major Kristi Board and senior biology major Ross Moulder are two of the 23 Texas A&M students who recently gave up part of their 2013-14 winter break to get a head start on their educational futures, courtesy of the first winter-mester at Aldine ISD for students enrolled in Teacher Education Field Based (TEFB) 324: Teaching Skills II. The course is taught by mathematics education professor Dawn Parker, who serves as director of teacher certification in the College of Education and Human Development, and is required for students like Board and Moulder who are seeking secondary teacher certification as education minors and members of aggieTEACH, a national peer-reviewed preparation model that has helped Texas A&M lead the state of Texas in university trained mathematics and science teacher production for the past eight years.

The high-impact, immersive, one-on-one winter-mester experience involved 23 teachers from two Aldine ISD campuses, MacArthur Senior High School and MacArthur 9th Grade School. In the span of roughly one month, the students earned three course credits and vital experience in a high-needs, urban educational environment before ever setting foot in their first classrooms.

"It was a life-changing experience that is really coming into full effect as I consider different school districts and their student populations," said Board, who will graduate next month with her bachelor's degree and is pursuing an internship to teach high school mathematics in Texas. "The full immersion of the winter-mester is something that really puts pre-service teachers ahead of others as far as their familiarity with the type of students they will be tasked with encouraging and supporting, given the different perspectives the Aldine district offers."

"Observing at Aldine was unlike any other classroom observations I have been a part of, largely due to the complexity of the student body," added Moulder, who also will leave Aggieland next month with his bachelor's degree and plans to student teach in Leander Independent School District this fall. "These students have likely had vastly different experiences from myself and the other student teachers, which is something I had to keep in mind. After the week was over, I concluded that there is a certain amount of mental toughness required to take on a classroom at a high-needs school such as Aldine."

Board and Moulder were two of 18 aggieTEACH members among the course's 23 Texas A&M students, who completed the majority of the class online, picking up valuable teaching strategies and other instruction- or technique-related information while also completing assignments and quizzes. One entire intense week, however, was spent entirely onsite at Aldine ISD in Houston, where they worked and interacted much like actual teachers in the field and got hands-on opportunities to apply all the theory they had learned during the previous three weeks and in prior courses at Texas A&M.

"Half of the students spent the week at one of our high schools, while the other half spent the week at our 9th grade center," McCanna said. "Both campuses are right next door to each other, and we did that purposely so that they could have conversations each day as to what they were seeing. They were totally immersed in what it was like to be a teacher, working with kids from the very beginning, and they did an excellent job.

"The whole point wasn't getting students from Texas A&M to think, 'Oh, I want to come here.' The point was getting them to think about other Aldines needing them to go out and be a difference-maker. We wanted to open their eyes to what it's like to work in an urban environment."

Parker says she was excited when the prospect of a winter-mester came up, adding to students' existing opportunities for enriching field experiences throughout the state.

"Aldine is remarkable to work with," Parker said. "They are unique in the amount of support and mentoring they offer for teachers within their schools and in their overall sense of community. It was a great setup, and I don't think we could have planned it any better. Having someone at the district level as enthusiastic and collaborative as Jeff McCanna is so helpful and of mutual benefit to us and to our students."

What originally began with a "let's see how it goes" approach involving McCanna, Texas A&M Department of Educational Psychology special education professor Glenda Byrns and Aggie students interested in Byrns' emphasis area is now in its third year, much to both partners' and their various constituencies' mutual delight.

"We had long been trying to get a program started because of the quality of teachers Texas A&M graduates, and we're always interested in anything Texas A&M might want to take us up on, like this winter-mester," McCanna said. "On the last day the students were here, I met them at the bus, and they were all smiling, appreciative, gracious and grateful for the experience. I had an expectation that it would go really well, but this far exceeded it, reinforcing all that I knew and hoped for about Texas A&M's program and the quality of its students.

"From our initial meeting, the partnership has blossomed on so many levels, to the point where we now work together to promote a variety of mutually beneficial initiatives, from the doctoral program to the STEM Academy. Essentially, we're a nationally recognized school district that is here to make ourselves available, and Texas A&M has capitalized on that for the benefit of all our students."

Jennifer Whitfield, mathematics professor and director of aggieTEACH and the STEM Academy, says the Aldine partnership is invaluable, both in preparatory experience -- particularly at the critical 9th grade year -- and in recruiting.

"Research shows that high-needs experience is not just preferable but required to be successful in a high-needs school," Whitfield said. "Aldine ISD is one of the largest school systems in the state and one of the most successful. It's a competitive market for graduates and potential employers, and we appreciate Aldine ISD for continuing to partner with us to make sure our students are as well prepared as possible to make a future impact."

Board says waking up at 5:30 a.m. every day and working a 40-hour-week in a classroom was definitely an endurance test -- one with huge rewards that helped reveal her true purpose and potential as a future educator.

"Working with the students at Aldine exposed me to the drive in its students," Board said. "I had never seen such an inherent passion to be successful, almost in spite of their circumstances outside of school. The students at Aldine showed me that they want a teacher who is accountable to them. A teacher who tells her students what they can expect of her. A teacher who makes clear that her only job is to ensure her students' success, in both her actions and words -- everything she does is for her students.

"The students of Aldine filled me with a passion to work with low socioeconomic students and to push them further than even they thought they could go. Many of these students just want someone else to believe in the possibility of their success. After my experience at Aldine, I know I have to be that person for every one of my students, and I plan to do so."

Moulder says he went from intimidated to impressed by Aldine's no-nonsense agenda and comprehensive efforts, from dress code and one-way hallways to visible IDS and metal detectors, to discourage misbehavior and encourage learning.

"I really think that Aldine is taking the right steps to ensure these students get the most out of their education," Moulder said. "The biggest challenge for me was the fact that these students often times view college or education as something they do not need. I was asked a handful of questions about college in general, which was encouraging, but I found myself hesitating to answer for fear that I would turn them off to the idea of pursuing higher education. The reason for this hesitation is likely due to how precarious any high school student's ambitions are, and in a school such as Aldine, you tend to observe a wide range of outcomes."

From McCanna's perspective as a teacher, assistant principal and administrator, he notes that Texas A&M students are well-rounded and, in most cases, better because their pre-service experiences emphasize theory reinforcement on actual K12 campuses well in advance of the student-teaching stage.

"The other thing that sets Texas A&M University apart is professors who are really committed to giving students experiences that will make them successful," McCanna said. "This is not an anomaly but the norm. Every person is totally committed to students getting quality experience. Busloads showed up every day for five consecutive days, not only with different students but also with different professors. That's dedication to job and to people."

For more information on teacher preparation programs at Texas A&M, go to http://teach.tamu.edu.

To learn more about aggieTEACH, visit http://aggieteach.tamu.edu.

For additional information about Aldine Independent School District, go to https://www.aldine.k12.tx.us/.

-aTm-

Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu; Dawn Parker, (979) 845-8384 or dparker@tamu.edu; or Jennifer Whitfield, (979) 458-2087 or jwhitfld@tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Urban Experience Required

    Each semester for the past few years, groups of Texas A&M University upper-level elementary and middle school education majors have been visiting Aldine Independent School District in Houston to get firsthand experience in a high-needs, urban environment, thanks to a mutually beneficial partnership that gives students on both campuses an experiential edge. (Photos courtesy of Aldine Independent School District.)

  • Impactful Immersion

    Seniors Kristi Board (above) and Ross Moulder (below) are two of the 23 Texas A&M students who recently participated in the first-ever winter-mester at Aldine ISD. Both are members of the aggieTEACH program and are set to graduate next month with respective bachelor's degrees in mathematics and science as well as plans either to intern or to student teach in Texas high school mathematics and science classrooms. (Photos by Igor Kraguljac.)

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