A partnership between the University of South Florida (USF) College of Education and Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) has created guaranteed job offers for program graduates to serve as middle school teachers in the school district.
This semester, 21 undergraduates in USF’s Helios STEM Middle School Residency Program celebrated as they accepted early job offers from HCPS during a signing day event attended by family, friends and university mentors.
The residency program, which launched in fall 2013, prepares student to teach mathematics in middle-school settings using science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The program provides students with two semester-long practica experiences, the support of university-based and school-based teacher educators and a one-year residency that prepares them to confidently enter the teaching field full-time after graduation.
The program focuses on middle grades education, a level that may be frequently overlooked by aspiring educators who are exploring which subject areas and age range they would like to specialize in.
“What we do in this program is we strategically scaffold students to think about the whole child,” Cheryl Ellerbrock, PhD, an associate professor and co-coordinator of the residency program, said. “Research clearly states that if young adolescents experience high quality instruction from teachers who know them well and know how to teach them based on the unique characteristics and needs of young adolescents, their chances of success in high school and in life goes up significantly.”
Education majors in the Helios Residency Program standout amongst their peers due to the intense field experiences they complete throughout their studies. From the time they enroll as juniors at USF, students accumulate more than 1,200 hours spent in the classroom, with teaching opportunities at each middle grades level (6-8) and at three different school sites within the Hillsborough school district.
For Hannah Manley, a senior in the program, being in a school environment for an entire year has enabled her to not only practice her teaching skills, but to also gain confidence in her ability to lead her own classroom.
“The Helios program has taught me so much, from culturally-responsive teaching to knowing that as teachers it is our job to advocate for our students,” Manley said. “We have an entire year of internship—we’re even there for pre-planning before school starts, so the relationships we build with students is amazing.”
Navigating through each middle grade level also brings forth a wealth of understanding, says Norma Carbajal, a mathematics education major who plans to graduate this spring.
“I remember our professors telling us that teaching middle school is not teaching the subject, but teaching the students because of how they’re developing,” Carbajal said. “I can totally see that in my residency. I’m (teaching) in sixth grade now, and I’ve been able to see how students transition each year.”
Developing a passion for teaching at the middle grades level tends to be the outcome for students in the Residency program, which is something not many education majors think about when beginning their studies.
Passionate, highly trained STEM teachers are especially important when you consider the value of subjects like math for middle schoolers, says Eugenia Vomvoridi-Ivanovic, PhD, an associate professor of mathematics education at USF and co-coordinator of the residency program.
“Middle school math is an area where in national and international assessments, there’s either been a decline in student performance or its remained stagnant,” Vomvoridi-Ivanovic said. “But, that kind of math content is critical for people to have. It’s the type of mathematical literacy that allows them to make informed decisions and to be able to fully participate in a democratic society.”
With guaranteed job placement following graduation, students in the Helios Residency Program can avoid the stress of job hunting and instead focus on further developing their teaching skills in preparation for a classroom of their own next year.
The impact the Helios students have had in schools already has placed them ahead of most, says USF alumna Sara Kay Bonti, who serves as HCPS’s Human Resources Supervisor of Teacher Recruitment and works with USF graduates to place them in teaching positions with the district.
“It’s a win-win for us,” Bonti said. “Because of the breadth and depth of the Helios program, they’ve been able to hit the ground running. We don’t even consider them first-year teachers.”
USF’s Helios STEM Middle School Residency Program is a joint program between the College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences in partnership with Hillsborough County Public Schools and was supported by a multi-million dollar grant provided by the Helios Education Foundation.