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Making the GRADE for Education

Making the GRADE for education
GRADE students excel on their way to becoming educators

In second grade, every week, Clay Monson ’12 would head from his classroom to the one across the hall to help students with special needs. When he later learned about mainstreaming, he couldn’t shake that experience—one he felt established a hierarchy in education early on and did a disservice to all students.

As a result, Monson is working toward a triple teaching certification in secondary English, inclusion, and literacy education through a unique program at the University of Rochester. Students in the Guaranteed Rochester Accelerated Degree in Education Program, otherwise known as GRADE, enter the University as freshmen with a guaranteed admission to the Warner School of Education.

“It would be possible to do all of this somewhere else, but not nearly with the time frame I’m looking at,” says the ambitious native of Phelps, N.Y., who is currently double majoring in English and modern languages & cultures, with minors in American Sign Language (ASL) and psychology. “I’ll be all finished at 23 or 24 and super-competitive because this is virtually unheard of in the education market. It’s just amazing what this program allows us to do.”

For students like Monson, GRADE, a five-year BA/BS + MS program for students interested in becoming educators that is modeled after other combined-admissions programs on campus, offers a flexible, expedited route to a future career in education. The program requires students to complete a minimum of 15 months of graduate study at the Warner School, where they may specialize in counseling, higher education, educational policy, or elementary or secondary education, with the option of additional certification in special education, literacy, or (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL). Along with eliminating the stress of searching for graduate schools, GRADE also offers extensive research, internship and professional development opportunities, as well as special invitations to book talks and speaker series; and takes care of one-third of tuition costs for all five years through the Steven Harrison Scholarship, named in memory of a former Warner School graduate and dedicated teacher.

While similar programs at other colleges and universities exist, none start during freshman year—a particularly important perk given that the University no longer offers an undergraduate education degree. Raffaella Borasi, dean of the Warner School, and Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University, realized that an unmatched program like GRADE would aid in recruitment efforts while increasing interdisciplinary offerings on campus.

Interest in GRADE has grown annually, from an original 25 inquiries to 258 last year. Yet the program is highly selective, admitting just six students in 2011-12. The current incoming cohort will have 14 students, and the eventual goal is a new cohort of about 40 students each year.

“We’re asking the Warner School to make a decision about these students as seniors in high school, so we’re looking for people who’ve always known they wanted to be involved in education,” says Stacy Wells Shea, associate director of combined-admissions programs at the University.

Even so, Shea, who helped design the GRADE program, emphasizes that program advisors encourage students to take full advantage of undergraduate life, including participation in sports and social clubs. “Rather than inundate them with education courses right in the beginning, we slide them in slowly and offer opportunities for experiential learning,” she explains. “We make sure they know they don’t have to figure out their whole life as freshmen. And in the end, if education isn’t for them, we get it.”

To make sure these academically accomplished students become—and remain—well-rounded in the process, Danielle Ianni, assistant director of admissions at the Warner School, provides steady support along the way as an advisor. A consistent face for students throughout their time at the University, Ianni interviews them when they apply and helps tailor the program for each one “so they feel taken care of and connected, and are able to do what they want to do,” she says. “Their passion for education is always there, but their interests vary, so we adjust the program to allow them to explore different options. My goal is to make sure that nothing is a surprise for them.”

To highlight that point, Ianni points to the incoming class for 2012-13, which includes students who want to pursue degrees in educational policy, teaching and curriculum, and higher education.

Kierstin Hakes ‘11, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and graduated in May with a master’s in teaching and curriculum, found the constant support invaluable. After spending two summers as an undergraduate in Africa, where she worked with former child soldiers at a rehabilitation center and later helped teach and develop curriculum for preschoolers, she felt called to shift her focus from being an educator in the U.S. to working with at-risk youth and children in developing or war-torn countries.
“I felt lost and wasn’t sure what to do with that epiphany,” says Hakes of Macedon, N.Y. “I was told, ‘We want you to pursue what you’re interested in, not force you in a cookie-cutter mold of what an education student looks like. What is it you want to do, and how can we help you with that?’ I don’t know what I would’ve done otherwise.”

The program’s flexibility has allowed Hakes to create an independent study looking at the needs of the African education system. She says her professors not only are aware that her program path is atypical, but they take time to openly acknowledge her needs in the classroom.

“They’re passionate about empowering students to pursue what they’re passionate about,” she says. “They help us take a critical look at the world and evaluate what we’re learning in light of our own experiences and where we see ourselves going. I just really appreciate that they incorporate our diverse backgrounds into classroom discussions and what we’re studying.”

Kathryn Lantuh ’12, who has a major in psychology and a minor in music, recently switched her master’s degree focus from teaching to educational policy. From kindergarten through middle school, the Webster, N.Y., native modeled what her teachers did at school, using a whiteboard in her parents’ office and her grandmother and younger sister as pupils. But after learning about testing, teacher preparation, and other aspects of education reform in a class late last year, she realized she wanted to help create change outside the classroom.

“This is a really great environment to be in, because you’re allowed to explore different aspects of education and still get actual field experience,” says Lantuh, who alongside Warner assistant professor Carol Anne St. George has been helping first-graders at a Rochester elementary school with literacy skills. In addition, through the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!), she coaches students at a Rochester high school as they strive to transform their business ideas into reality.

Despite her busy academic schedule, Lantuh has made time for the University of Rochester crew team over the past four years (she has been captain for the last two), jobs as an on-campus resident advisor and in various positions at the nearby Mt. Hope Family Center, and as a volunteer with the University’s M.K. Ghandi Institute for Nonviolence.

Her coping mechanism: “Lots of to-do lists.”

David Hursh, associate professor in teaching and curriculum, observes that as undergraduates, GRADE students tend to do as well in introductory courses as those pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees. To more experienced students initially skeptical of the mix, he suggests reserving judgment until they’ve had a chance to see the value of such varied perspectives.

“I just tell them, ‘My experience has been that you shouldn’t worry about it. They’re going to contribute. Our job is to make sure we all learn from one another,’” he says. “Because of the kind of courses we offer, it works.”

Chelsea Audin '11Chelsea Audin ‘11, a graduate of the mathematics and inclusion teacher education programs, recalls her first class at Warner during her junior year: “It was a nice and intimidating mixture. I learned a lot by having that exposure to other people’s ideas, which made me reassess my own personal views on education.”

Audin, who majored in mathematics and minored in psychology and history as an undergraduate, says the diversity of her peers gave her more than insight—she had a network of connections to tap into when she embarked on her job search. She adds that her time at Warner had exposed her to opportunities she never knew existed, such as the Urban Teaching and Leadership Program, which matches teachers committed to social change with innovative teaching practices. From the Boston suburb of Sudbury, Mass., where she first became interested in social issues as a high school freshman, Audin will begin her career as a special educator at William Smith High School, an expeditionary learning school, in Aurora, Colo. next year.

“Everything has fit so well and fallen into place at the perfect time,” she says. “It doesn’t even seem real. I can’t imagine having been in another program.”

Monson, meanwhile, has begun contemplating several post-degree options, including jobs in the Northeast, down South, and overseas in England.

“Everything is open for me right now,” he says. “I know that I’ll get something I love, which is the good part.”