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Historic Grant Will Help CSU Recruit More Diverse And Culturally Responsive Teacher Candidates

Project UNITE, an urban network community on campus, ready to set the golden standard

Cleveland State University Drs. Terri Purcell, Markita Warren, Laura Northrop, and Beth Nagy have been awarded a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education that will help put CSU squarely in the driver's seat when it comes to being the destination for recruiting diverse teacher candidates.

Over the next three years, Project UNITE (Urban Network to Inspire Teaching Excellence) will promote effective teaching in urban schools through a one-year residency for teacher candidates and continued support in their first year of teaching. "The timing is perfect," said Purcell of the grant. "In the past three years, the College of Education has gone through a period of self-examination. During the early days of COVID, with the rash of violence against Black and Brown people, the disparities revealed [and] heightened political discussions of race led to faculty embarking on a yearlong investigation led by our then-Associate Dean Dr. Tachelle Banks."

Using grant funding, Project UNITE will launch an urban teaching consortium, establish a virtual teacher resource center, provide ongoing training and coaching to residents, develop a teacher leadership academy for mentors, and widely disseminate new knowledge. This comprehensive approach is intended to help schools expand their capacity for excellence as teacher leaders emerge and resources are distributed.

Equally exciting is the support UNITE offers to CSU faculty in teacher preparation. Faculty are invited to attend monthly trainings, participate in cross-institutional professional learning communities (PLCs), access resources, join "listening sessions" with principals and teachers, and investigate their practices. These efforts will help establish CSU as a leader in the nation and an innovator in teacher preparation.

The faculty of CSU’s Levin College of Public Affairs and Education felt that more should be done to develop culturally responsive teachers, promote antiracist teaching, and ensure high-quality teaching standards for all students.

"We also questioned whether we were doing enough to support our BIPOC teacher candidates," said Purcell. "This work inspired a deeper evaluation of our program, which led to multiple grant projects and initiatives around race, equity, and inclusion in teacher preparation."

Purcell said some projects include Project HEART, DREAM, and the Network Improvement Community. The faculty conversations also shed a greater spotlight on existing programs such as MUST, RISE, EngenderEd, Urban Youth Participatory Research, and the Urban School Climate Studies—all of which explore diverse student populations in urban schools. Project UNITE brings together aspects of all these projects under the umbrella of improving urban education. 

"Urban districts generally serve more students of color (Black and Hispanic) and children from lower-income or impoverished communities," said Purcell. "Unfortunately, they are often characterized by low academic achievement, higher incidents of trauma, and higher student mobility rates. Even more concerning is that urban schools tend to be more difficult to staff with quality teachers, leading to higher teacher turnover when compared to suburban districts."

Though this may be a reality in urban schools, we must move beyond the "crises narrative” or the deficit model and recognize the teachers and schools making a difference.  We need to study them, learn from them, and use the information to improve teacher preparation. 

As part of the overall proposal, UNITE has incorporated four critical components for an effective teacher residency program:

Recruiting Teacher Candidates of Color: UNITE will recruit 150 residents, with the hope of attracting more BIPOC students focusing on reflecting urban schools' cultural diversity. The residents will be paired with teachers of record in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and the Maple Heights City School District (MHCSD), who will mentor them for an entire year and continue supporting them during their first year of teaching.

Delivering Ongoing Professional Development (PD) and Instructional Coaching: Consultants and teacher education faculty will provide workshops and instructional coaching to teachers (hereafter referred to as mentors) that align with urban students' needs. Coaching will center on areas essential to effective teaching in urban schools, including culturally sustaining practice (CSP) and social and emotional learning (SEL).

Improving Faculty Support for Teachers in High-Needs Urban Schools: CSU faculty will engage in professional development to examine and strengthen their support for high-needs urban schools and interact online with teachers to share knowledge.

Disseminating Knowledge: Partnering with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), the Levin College of Urban Affairs and Education will launch online cross-institutional "Partnership Professional Learning Communities" (PPLCs) for sharing work and an Urban Teaching Consortium of urban school, university, and community leaders.

The groundwork for the program will take place over three years, with the first known as the planning stage. Here, the focus is on recruiting residents and teacher mentors, establishing relationships with principals and teachers, and gathering information about the school climate, instruction, schedule, and student population. Additionally, the UNITE team will develop materials and training workshops, and plan a summer Urban Teaching Conference.

The second year is where implementation will ramp up.

"Teacher mentors and residents will participate in professional development workshops focusing on creating joyful learning, inquiry-based learning, culturally responsive teaching, social and emotional development, and the meaningful integration of technology," said Purcell. "At the same time, we hope to launch the virtual urban teaching resource center and, amongst other things, expand faculty awareness of best practices in urban schools."

By the third year, Purcell hopes the program will be a well-oiled machine, with the hopes of its success being the driving force in leading when it comes to urban education.

"As a college, we are deeply engaged in urban education research [and] we are increasing our understanding of the context, needs, and opportunities in urban schools," she said. "Our teacher preparation program is field based, which means our teacher candidates spend a lot of time in the schools, connecting with teachers and their students early in their program, and this allows them to gain a more realistic view of the school climate."

As Purcell peers into her crystal ball, she sees plenty of reasons to be excited in the next three years as the program blossoms and CSU garners national attention.

"Part of the reason some teachers are hesitant to work in urban schools is the fear of being unprepared. Through UNITE, we can refine our efforts in developing teachers who are more than ready to work in urban schools. Of course, we want our students to be knowledgeable, skilled, and culturally responsive,” she said. “Still, it is also essential that we produce teachers committed to urban schools, value the richness of diverse communities, recognize the challenges and opportunities they present, and are confident in their abilities to inspire learners.”

Purcell continued:

"It is also important for our students to possess the dispositional traits necessary to engage respectfully with diverse students and their families. CSU is on a mission to build an effective model for training dynamic teachers to work in urban districts—teachers who are energetic problem solvers, creative instructional designers, and joyful learners who value the diverse experiences and voices of their students.”

Learn more about Project UNITE. »