Denver finds teachers in some unlikely places

After losing her job in marketing, Margarita Rodriguez-Corriere went through the Denver Teacher Residency program, and now is a fifth-grade teacher at Archuleta Elementary School in Denver. Enlarge photo

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

After losing her job in marketing, Margarita Rodriguez-Corriere went through the Denver Teacher Residency program, and now is a fifth-grade teacher at Archuleta Elementary School in Denver.

DENVER – Margarita Rodriguez-Corriere spent months looking for work after losing her marketing job in 2009.

Then a friend told her about a Denver Public Schools teaching residency that trains new teachers by using a model based on medical residencies.

The MBA graduate and married mother of a 12- and 18-year-old spent a year observing and working with a second-grade teacher at Archuleta Elementary School while earning a master’s degree in education from the University of Denver. Today, she is a fifth-grade teacher at Archuleta.

“There were moments when I thought, ‘Holy cow, am I going to make it through this?’” Rodriguez-Corriere said of the residency. “It’s taxing as a mom and a wife. It’s taxing physically. But there was never any doubt that I shouldn’t have done this.”

The Denver Teacher Residency, which asks participants for a five-year commitment, is helping one of the state’s fastest-growing school districts recruit and retain new teachers in math and science, special education and general elementary school education in English or Spanish at schools with large percentages of lower-income students, which typically are among the hardest positions to fill.

Since the first residents went through the program in 2009-2010, the more than 130 recruits have included a retired Air Force pilot, a former lawyer and an accountant.

Just as medical residents train and practice under the supervision of fully licensed doctors, the teacher residents tackle the real-world classroom alongside a mentor teacher as they work toward a professional license.

Of those who survive their residency year of classroom observation, talking with a mentor teacher, handling a full class of students on their own, developing lesson plans and juggling administrative tasks while also taking classes for a master’s degree, about 90 percent still are teaching, program executive director Shannon Hagerman said.

The program offers monthly stipends, tuition reimbursement and priority status for a teaching job in the district for successful graduates. DU also discounts tuition by half, or about $27,000.

Career-switchers and others without a teacher’s license have until Feb. 15 to apply to be part of the latest group of recruits.

Unlike some student-teaching programs that require only a few months in the classroom, the residency program puts prospective teachers in a classroom for a full school year with a mentor before their first year on their own.

“In my dream world, everyone would have a full year in the classroom,” said Linda Barker, director of teaching and learning at the Colorado Education Association union, which “loves” the program. “The negative is, it’s costly. The cost benefit is you have a much stronger candidate who really understands what your district is about.”

The Janus Education Alliance and grant money have helped support Denver Teaching Residency and the included stipends and tuition discounts.

Hagerman was a principal at Montclair School of Academics & Enrichment when she grew frustrated with student teachers who didn’t seem invested in her students.

“The residency model is designed to allow a candidate to be recruited and specifically selected to work with students from our district. They become as invested in our students as the rest of us. They become part of our faculty. That was very, very appealing to me,” she said.

What surprised Rodriguez-Corriere the most was the workload.

“When they say it’s modeled after a medical residency, they’re not kidding,” she said.

By the end, she had experience creating learning plans, meeting with parents and, of course, teaching alone.

“It’s like doing a PowerPoint presentation all day,” she said.

Her annual pay of around $60,000 – which includes several bonuses for skills and accomplishments such as being bilingual – is less than her former marketing salary. But she does have a pension, which she didn’t before, and intangible rewards.

“You may not be making millions, but when you retire, you’ve changed a lot of lives,” she said.