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Filling the Gaps: Teaching Fellows in the City’s Special Education Classes

Two summers ago, Lopi Markel was a college graduate and part-time poet working as a bartender in Miami, longing for a career and a chance to return to the city. The New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative teaching preparation certificate program, sounded perfect. It was stable. It was a field that held great appeal for her. And she could earn a master’s degree along with a decent salary.

Markel did not realize that around 40 percent of the city’s Teaching Fellows were placed in high-needs special education classes, where children can face disabilities ranging from mild dyslexia to severe emotional disturbance. The children’s challenges often fell well beyond the scope of the fellows’ training.

Markel, now 26, was assigned to a special education class in John Jay Secondary School for Research in Brooklyn. The school for sixth through 12th graders is one of three small schools that replaced the large and failing John Jay High School three years ago. Despite the hopeful promise of small schools such as hers, the School for Research graduated only 56 percent of its students last school year. Only 21 percent of the ninth graders read at grade level.

The Teaching Fellow program that began with roughly 300 participants seven years ago has now grown to include more than 6,000 former and current fellows in 1,080 New York City schools. The numbers of its teachers in special education has grown as well. This year fellows like Markel make up 18 percent of the city’s total special education teachers, according to the Department of Education’s Center for Recruitment and Professional Development.

“This has been an ongoing area of need both in New York City and the nation. There just simply aren’t enough special education teachers,” said Cathy Rikhye, a professor at Teachers College and a former director of Inclusive Education for District 75.

Some educators see the fellows program as an essential tool to fill a great need in the system for special education teachers. Others see placing inexperienced teachers on a fast track to certification in classrooms with students that require more special attention as a disservice to both students and new educators.

“These are kids that need the most help, and they and their teachers are getting the least amount of resources,” said Amida Gentile, director of educational programs for United Federation of Teachers. “Teaching Fellows are enthusiastic and they do provide a resource that is greatly needed, but that doesn’t match the benefits that a well-skilled teacher can provide, particularly if there is not administrative support.”

There are indications that the city’s schools are failing a great number of their special education students. A 2005 report by Advocates for Children, a research group, found that only 12 percent of special education students in New York City graduated with a Regents or regular high school diploma.

Part of the Teaching Fellows’ mission is to staff low-income districts in the Bronx and central Brooklyn with these new college graduates. Many of these schools are unable to provide some of the most basic resources for their students, like adequate classroom space, which they say can affect the impact they have as new teachers.

Markel recently discovered that one of her eighth graders is pregnant and most of her students and their families are facing economic hardships. Nearly 70 percent of the school’s population lives in poverty.

As a resource room teacher, Markel works with students who receive special instruction outside the regular classroom. She is supposed to remove her students with learning disabilities from the classroom to work with them one on one.

However, since she arrived in August 2006, space has been limited. Originally she was given some room in the back of one teacher’s classroom. Eventually the situation became too distracting for both her and the other teacher, so she moved into the detention room.

All the shifting of classroom space at times was discouraging to her and her students. “Imagine you get a new job in an office and they tell you, sorry, you don’t have a desk, phone or computer for you to use, but we need you to finish this major report by Friday,” said Markel.

Training for the Teaching Fellows involved a seven-week session that included student teaching in the summer. Markel said there was a revival-like feeling about the program. Fellows were pumped with rhetoric about how they were there to be an instrumental part of closing the achievement gap.

“The time spent in class over the summer was nothing compared to what I deal with in my school,” said Markel.

The purpose, one former fellow said, was to create an opportunity to license new teachers. “It bothers me when I hear fellows complain about the program and how they ‘throw you into a classroom with no help,’” said Eva Spebrink, who now teaches fourth grade in Brooklyn. “See, I never expected them to do the job for me or with me, as many fellows assumed. I really wasn't expecting anyone to hold my hand. They were just there to facilitate the process of getting my license and placing me in a school.”

Each Teaching Fellow is responsible for finding his or her own school-level position. Although candidates can express subject area and borough preferences, school assignments are driven primarily by school needs and the fellow’s eligibility.

The program began as a way to stem the increasing teacher shortages that were impacting schools across the country, particularly in urban areas and in subjects such as math, science and special education. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 1999 to 2000 school year, almost a third of America’s teachers left the field sometime during their first three years of teaching, and almost half left after five years.

Similarly, a 2003 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future showed that in 2000 public schools across the country hired 232,000 teachers that had not taught the year before. The next year, more than 287,000 teachers left the public schools and resulted in a net loss of 24 percent.

New York City ’s Fellows program is currently the largest alternative teaching certification program in the country and part of a growing answer to teacher shortages. The New Teachers Project, the non-profit organization that partnered with the New York City Department of Education to develop the Teaching Fellows program, has since exported it to other major cities including Chicago, Washington D.C and Philadelphia.

Alternative routes to certify new teachers are as old as the teacher shortage crisis. According to the National Center for Education Information, 47 states and the District of Columbia currently report at least one type of alternative route. Despite all the different models, there is virtually no research knowledge on how well teachers do and students learn in any of them.

“They are needed programs, but unfortunately, alternative route certifications are not created equally,” said Linda Malarz, senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, a national research and advocacy organization that focuses on public education. “The fatal flaw for many of these programs is that they don’t provide extensive mentoring by expert teachers.”

As part of the program, the Department of Education requires fellows to teach in New York City public schools for the duration of their master’s degree coursework, which can take two to three years. Fellows who leave the program early must pay back the amount spent on their behalf toward the master’s degree. Not surprisingly, the program’s retention rate is high for the first two years, at about 85 percent. It drops to around 55 percent at the end of the fourth year, after most Fellows have completed their course work.

Markel has no intention, now, she said, of quitting after the three years it will take to earn her certification.

“I’m not gonna lie, this year has been really difficult,” she said. “But I do love my job because I love the kids. I want to be a good teacher. I’m probably not one yet.”