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Larry Koszewski stood at the side of his classroom in St. Paul's Creative Arts High School, talking students one by one through a biology quiz.
When they didn't understand something, he'd nudge them to the right answer. And when they didn't do well, he told them they could come retake the quiz after school the next day.
"When I do the one-on-one tests, I can really tell where the gaps in my lessons might have been," said Koszewski. His students are learning science and Koszewski, a first-year Teaching Fellow in the St. Paul School District, is learning to teach.
He's one of 41 brand-new teachers who started in classrooms this fall for hard-to-fill subject areas such as special education and science. Funds for the new teacher project come through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The School District set out to find high-quality people working in other professions to improve the quality of the district's teaching ranks and fill teaching positions where they've often had to rely on teachers without full licenses.
More than 630 people applied for the St. Paul Teaching Fellows Program.
"We know that a lot of people want to be teachers," said Norah Barrett, site manager of the St. Paul Teaching Fellows, "and we know that a lot of people see the achievement gap and want to make a change. People feel really passionately that everybody should get a great education."
An impact on the community
Of the 41 teachers in the Teaching Fellows program, 26 percent hold advanced degrees and 20 percent are people of color. They are all from the Twin Cities, their average undergraduate GPA was 3.4 and their average age is 30.
All of the fellows passed two exams required to be described as "highly qualified" teachers, and 43 percent of them passed with honors.
"I think the advantage of these teachers is that they've tried out other pathways, and this is for sure what they want to do," said Barrett. "They also are bringing in a lot of knowledge from the outside world."
The district gave them a five-week crash course over the summer on teaching in urban settings -- complete with mornings teaching in the district's summer school alongside veteran teachers, and afternoon courses on teaching techniques. The teachers are also taking graduate education courses at Hamline University, so they'll have a full license after two years.
Barrett said that all the teachers applying knew they would be working in the St. Paul schools, so the applicant pool seemed particularly dedicated to working in high-needs schools. That sentiment is certainly true for Koszewski.
"I wanted to work in a job where I could have a positive impact in the community that I lived in," he said. "So far, I feel like I have been able to come into the classroom and make a difference."
Koszewski graduated from college with a degree in biology. While in school, he did an internship at a nonprofit, traveling the state to teach people how to do water resource management. He's also a musician, and spent time pursuing music after college. He's the bass player in Minneapolis jam band Wookiefoot -- and still performs with them -- but he said he missed science over his years in music so he took a job as a substitute teacher at the Blake School last year.
And he loved it.
"It was satisfying to me, because I could use my personal creativity and interact with people to better their understanding of science and hopefully give them a richer life," he said.
Finding out what works
The St. Paul School District offers mentor teachers for all first-year teachers in the district, as well as content-area coaching for any teacher in the district. Forty-two teachers started the program, one dropped out before school started because of health reasons, and one more is having her last day of teaching today.
For Koszewski, who is the entire science department at the small Creative Arts High School, an Academic Learning Center program in the district, there was "a little" anxiety on his first day as a full-fledged teacher, but the program had given him ideas of how to use his first few days.
Since then, he's done "some things that worked" -- such as setting up groups that his students will work in throughout the year -- and "some things that didn't" -- such as some exercises he took from the textbooks that the students "just hated."
But he also remembers a special education student he taught who was at a fourth-grade reading level. He struggled through the first few weeks, but Koszewski worked with a special education teacher at the school to come up with a plan for him.
After getting almost no credit in the first half of the quarter, the student passed.
Was that a rewarding experience for a first-year teacher?
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "It was excellent. It reinforced the idea that I'm doing the right thing, and I'm enjoying myself. I've had day jobs before where it's just not rewarding. Teaching for me, every day I enjoy being here, interacting with my students, and seeing them succeed."
Emily Johns • 651-298-1541