Teach the teachers

The Literacy Specialist Endorsement Program educates coaches who help provide professional development for teachers, which ultimately benefits the elementary students they instruct.

By John Walsh

In its fifth year, the consortium-based Literacy Specialist Endorsement Program continues to take advantage of technology to develop teachers professionally.

John Carroll University has partnered with six educational institutions in Ohio – Muskingum University, The University of Akron, The University of Toledo, University of Dayton, Wright State University and Youngstown State University – to offer teachers in and out of Ohio an advanced professional education program that prepares them to serve as instructional leaders in schools.

“It would be extremely challenging for one university to run such a program when faculty and financial resources are strained,” says Cathy Rosemary, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Education and Allied Studies and program coordinator of the Literacy Specialist Endorsement Program. “We would have to hire adjunct professors. The program promotes collaboration throughout the state, and the students learn from full-time literacy faculty of the participating universities.”

Kathleen Roskos, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Education and Allied Studies, co-developed the program with Rosemary and consortium faculty, and serves as one of the online course instructors.

The one-year advanced program in reading education consists of 18 semester hours that include online coursework and a school-based internship. Successful completion of the program, which is the only online program JCU offers, fulfills requirements for a Literacy Special Endorsement, a state credential that’s added to a current professional teaching certificate or license. Some participating institutions may include the consortium-based coursework as part of their advanced degree programs.

“This program demonstrates the power of collaboration and shared vision that may be harnessed to create a lasting social good,” says Nicholas Santilli, Ph.D., associate academic vice president for planning and assessment and institutional effectiveness. “Dr. Rosemary’s and Dr. Roskos’ work has brought together faculty and administrators from public and private institutions of higher learning, of differing sizes and resources, to create a viable and academically excellent program to support teachers and students. This is a wonderful example of how disparate academic communities may be unified by a common vision to meet an obvious social need.”

Candidates for the program, which has graduated 87 teachers since 2007, must have a valid teaching license or certificate, a strong educational background in literacy education, and three or more years of teaching experience.

“Teachers with this advanced accreditation are well-equipped to coach teachers and lead professional development to help them improve instruction, which, in turn, improves student learning,” Rosemary says. “Teachers cannot be static in their professional knowledge.”

Literacy coaching programs and courses exist but no other has a consortium of universities offering a full-fledged graduate program, says Rosemary. This year, the consortium has taken the program beyond Ohio.

This year, out-of-state teachers – one from Missouri and one from the country of Columbia – are participating in the program for the first time. A total of eight are enrolled in the program, a small number, which is driven by the economy and the fact teachers are receiving less reimbursement for continuing education from their school systems. Ideally, a cohort size each year is 20. The idea of a cohort model is that students who start the program finish at the same time and help each other learn along the way.

Literacy coaching and instructional leader positions throughout the state may come and go because of funding or lack thereof, but having a coach at every school is ideal. As more schools build capacity within for the continuous professional learning of teachers, they’ll depend on literacy coaches with expertise – and this comes from participation in a rigorous literacy coach (specialist) preparation program.

“Literacy is the cornerstone of all learning,” Santilli says. “Improving literacy ensures that students are capable of understanding course content regardless of discipline. Without these critical literacy skills, students struggle to gain the knowledge necessary to prepare them for life as adults in the 21st Century.”

Making a difference
Erin Killeen is a literacy specialist in the Stow-Munroe Falls (Ohio) school district. Prior to her current position, she taught elementary school for 11 years. The literacy special position existed in the school district about six years ago but was eliminated because of funding. Currently, funding exists through federal grants. Every year, the school district reevaluates the funding and position.

Killeen doesn’t think the Stow-Munroe Falls district has that much more money than other districts in the state, but the district believes the literacy specialist position is important because it helps educate teachers and provides them with continuing education and professional development.

Killeen works mostly with teachers on their instruction and what works with student progress and performance, which helps determine needs. She plans professional development, which is built into a teacher’s day, based on those needs.

“My job is important because it’s the best way to move students forward,” she says. “I can help teachers teach better. I’m a source of information and resources for them.”

Killeen meets with teachers at each grade level one day a month. They analyze data from the year before to tweak teaching strategies and focus on reading comprehension.

Killeen earned her undergraduate degree from Miami University in 1996 and master’s degree (studying reading and literacy arts) from John Carroll in 2001. That’s when she came to know Rosemary, whom she had for class. Six months after taking the literary specialist position at Stow-Munroe Falls, she enrolled in the literacy specialist program at Carroll, which she heard about through the Ohio Department of Education and Rosemary.

“I was interested in how teachers teach kids to read,” she says. “I needed the program because I was fairly new at the job. The program is so collaborative, which I wasn’t expecting for an online program. Teachers were communicating constantly through wikis, blogs, e-mail, and discussion boards. We were paired in small groups based on students’ needs. We had some phone conversations with our professors, but most communication was electronic. The professors, who were very supportive, kept in close contact with us. We learned a lot from each other because there was so much sharing. We learned as much from the other teachers as we did from the professors. I’m still in contact with some of the others who went through the program. It was a great experience.”

If Killeen didn’t go through the literacy specialist program, she says she wouldn’t know the research behind what she does.

“I’d be doing a lot more trial and error if I didn’t go through the program and wouldn’t know as much about literacy learning,” she says.

Lori Brobst, who received her undergraduate degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree in elementary education from Ursuline College, is a literacy coach, too. After Ursuline, Brobst taught kindergarten in Florida for two years. Then she returned to Northeast Ohio and became a special education tutor. That’s when a friend told her the Mentor (Ohio) school district was hiring a literacy specialist.

“I got a job as a literacy coach, and that’s how I got connected with the program at Carroll,” she says, adding a regional literacy coach informed her about the program. “The program was intense, and I thought it was going to be overwhelming in addition to my full-time job.

“Ursuline and John Carroll have one thing in common: It’s to prepare you,” she adds. “I had two years of schooling from Ursuline and Carroll, and I’m more prepared than anyone in the school district. They were on the cutting edge of technology like you wouldn’t believe – research books, flip videos, webcams – it all came to my door. There was no face-to-face with Cathy Rosemary, but it went well.”

Learning from other teachers was a beneficial experience for Brobst.

“We were on that Web chat night and day,” she says. “We had to read all comments and respond to them. Sometimes professors didn’t need to get on the chat. Sometimes they stayed out of it. Now I’m a certified facilitator of online courses for the state. It’s all meshing.”

Brobst, who’s part of a district leadership team, is always looking to improve students’ test scores and determine the next best plan. She reviews data, and based on that data, focuses on the weakest part of the district and tries to improve it.

Brobst would like to participate in a follow-up program because the further she gets into professional development for teachers, the more questions she has.

“I have a solid foundation of the process of how things work,” she says. “You have to build trust with teachers, and you don’t want to be viewed as an administrator. I know how to coach teachers one on one because Cathy Rosemary was my teacher. I still use all the technology they gave me. I Skype with the webcam.”

Spread the word
The literacy specialist program isn’t promoted heavily within school systems in state, Rosemary says. It’s promoted mainly by word of mouth. However, she plans to present what’s needed to promote the program to teacher’s associations.

“This program is a great public/private partnership that has worked to meet the demands of educating teachers for the position of literacy specialist and instructional leader in schools,” she says. JCU

For more information about the Literacy Specialist Endorsement Program, visit www.literacyspecialist.org.

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