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Collaboration offers graduate level credits

Phoenix-Talent School District teachers and staff are earning graduate level credits in education from Southern Oregon University through classes taught by district teachers and staff in a situation unique in the region.

“The biggest positive feedback is that they are really grateful for having current practitioners. They call it ‘boots on the ground,’” said Heather Lowe Rogers, one of the instructors and vice principal at Talent Middle School. Students don’t have the feeling that they are learning from someone removed from classroom experiences.

“We live in the moment with them and struggle through the things they go through,” said Rogers. It’s a way to bridge a gap with instructors who are in the buildings and know what is going on.

Classes are now in their fourth year, the outgrowth of a state grant program that brought the district and SOU together. Teachers from other districts are also enrolled in the courses.

The classes provide ongoing professional development for teachers who are working toward advance degrees and certifications, said John King, SOU’s director of the Division of Education, Health and Leadership. But they also are designed to help teachers early in their careers.

“There’s extra support for the beginners. You can’t learn to teach in a year or two,” said King. “For the master teachers who are experienced and help co-develop the courses, it helps them in their career ladder.”

Traditionally K-12 teachers who want to advance their careers move into administration and away from teaching. The program provides an alternative for those who would prefer to continue teaching, King said.

All classes are taught at Phoenix Elementary School in a room dubbed the Adult Learning Center. Part of the state collaboration grant was to set up the center. Rogers’ current class has 10 students, while most courses run from seven to 15 students, although one had 20.

Rogers is team-teaching a class on Trauma Informed School Practices with Lisa Rullman, who works for the Medford School District. Last year Rogers taught a course in Restorative Practices.

The program has two tracks. The first focuses on trauma and its roles in education, and the second focuses on instruction. There are typically one or two classes per term.

The arrangement also offers compensation benefits for both students and teachers. The course instructors earn a little extra money, and additional units of education credits can boost the teachers into higher pay classifications, Rogers said.

Most of the tuition cost for students is covered through several means. In the past SOU supplied tuition vouchers because the district hosts student teachers from the institution, and the employee associations provided some support. But this year carryover Title II funds are being used.

Courses are open to classified staff with the hope that some might become teachers. Phoenix-Talent School District is seeing retirement of a number of senior faculty members and is attempting a “grow your own” program.

“We are certainly seeing a higher demand (for teachers),” said Rogers.

Second year special education teacher Marina Piacentini from Talent Middle School said the breadth of experience of other students in Rogers’ class enhances the learning.

“My fellow students are teachers with all different levels of experience,” said Piacentini. “There’s a lot of great perspectives coming from the different teachers who have different ways of applying the information.”

Piacentini completed one course last school year. The additional classes mean she will move up one step on the salary scale.

“I think the classes really expanded the partnership between the university and the district,” said King. He’d like to see other districts in the area use the collaboration as a model for their own programs.

SOU faculty member Amy Belcastro serves as a liaison to the program, said King. That includes helping support the teachers so they are approved as faculty and that credit can be awarded for the classes.

“On a personal, professional level, it’s a blessing to step out of my day-to-day role and tap back into the role as a teacher and educator and be able to learn alongside some pretty amazing students,” said Rogers. “I’m learning just as much as they are, continuing the conversation to facilitate the outcomes of education.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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