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Innovative master's program enhances teacher retention and performance at Des Moines Public Schools

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Nadia Drake, a 1st grade teacher at River Woods Elementary School, is one of many new teachers in the BLUE program taking on leadership roles in their school and the district.

A seed planted during negotiations between the Des Moines Public School District (DMPS) and its teachers in 2012 is about to bear its first fruits.

There will be a distinctly DMPS flavor to the commencement ceremony scheduled for this Saturday at Drake University. Nearly 70 district teachers will receive customized, innovative master's degrees in culturally responsive leadership and instruction from Drake's School of Education.

They are the initial batch of graduates since the BLUE (Building Leaders in Urban Education) contract was first offered by the Des Moines school district as a recruiting and retention tool almost six years ago.

BLUE teachers have registered a higher retention rate than their non-BLUE colleagues every year since the program’s inception. Rookie teachers opting for it receive higher starting pay plus extra professional development and support in years 1-3. The degree they earn at Drake in years 4-6 is free, if they stay for at least eight years (one intra-district transfer is permitted). If they leave sooner, they must pay it back. Veteran teachers may also pursue the BLUE degree at significantly reduced tuition rates.

In 2011, the district's retention rate for first-year teachers was 49.6 percent. In 2016, the overall rate was up to 88 percent. Among BLUE teachers, it was 97 percent.

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into when we signed on to the BLUE contract,” said Alyssa Eisler, who teaches ELL at Weeks Middle School. “It seemed like a promising opportunity, so I took a chance. We all did. We wanted to become great teachers. This whole experience has turned out to be a collection of unbelievable opportunities. One thing really leads to another. Last summer, I traveled to China to teach with others from the cohort. I could not have dreamed that a few years ago! My BLUE friends are some of the hardest working and dedicated people I know. We have some amazing teachers in our midst and I am honored to be a part of it.”

The degree curriculum consists of 11 classes: six mandatory and five electives. The degree was designed collaboratively by DMPS administrators and the Drake University School of Education, and is tailored to meet the challenges and opportunities characteristic of a diverse, urban school district like Des Moines.

The BLUE program was a bold stroke that carried some risk but is paying off for all stakeholders, from taxpayers to students.

“The first cohort cost $448,800,” said Noelle Tichy, Executive Director of Teaching & Learning at DMPS. “The cost of turnover for just one newly hired first-year teacher is $15,248. Over five years, our savings due to the reduction of turnover costs is $489,319.”

There is a well-established link between teacher quality and student achievement and the BLUE program leverages that reality in three important ways:

  • By attracting the best prospects to the district
  • By customizing teachers' advanced training to the district's needs
  • By keeping teachers within the district to apply their expertise

Besides specialized graduate training that pays dividends in their classrooms, BLUE teachers take on extra roles and duties. Two-thirds are already in leadership roles in their buildings, according to Tichy. For instance, besides leadership committees in their own buildings, both Nadia Drake (1st grade teacher at River Woods) and Jenna Willson (Reading Instructor at North) serve on the district’s Equity Committee, which presents monthly professional development content for leadership PLCs (professional learning communities). Those kinds of roles effectively share the BLUE curriculum content districtwide.

“I have learned so much,” said Drake. “The BLUE program has made me a more reflective and effective teacher, allowed me to go on a personal and educational journey with a cultural proficiency/equity lens, and pushed me outside of my comfort zone to learn how I can support my students in different ways. Most importantly, I have a network of individuals across the district that I can call on for help, support, or a sounding board for new ideas.”

When she talks about supporting her students in different ways, Drake’s hinting at the “culturally responsive” aspect of the BLUE curriculum, which emphasizes meeting students where they live and using sometimes difficult backgrounds and circumstances as a resource rather than a hindrance.

Jenna Willson is a reading instructor at North High School who says the BLUE program has had a dramatic impact on her career as an educator.

“Participating in the BLUE contract…with a group of my peers has had a dramatic impact on my career,” said Willson. “The Culturally Responsive Leadership and Instruction program has helped me become a more effective teacher in my classroom and a stronger leader overall. My peers in the program have become some of my best friends. Teaching will always be a hard job, but having a strong network of teachers across the district…is one of the best aspects of the program.”

This weekend will highlight another program highlight—the free graduate degree.

On Friday night, Drake's School of Education will host a capstone event where degree candidates will present research projects. Then it’s on to the main event on Saturday morning at The Knapp Center.

Drake’s colors, blue and white, will be the dominant motif in the commencement ceremonies. But the DMPS accent will be conspicuous. Special blue and gold cords will adorn the gowns of a highly qualified group of uniquely trained urban teachers who are already making the difference they promised to when they signed on. They will become Drake alums sporting a brand that marks them as DMPS veterans—young ones who like it here in a district recently tabbed as one of the nation’s best for teachers.

And there are more (200+ in currently contracted cohorts) where they came from.

— This feature was written by Mike Wellman, staff writer for Des Moines Public Schools, and originally published to the Des Moines Public Schools website.

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