By the time Brie Stalker graduated from the University of Kentucky (UK), she had already been working and learning at Picadome Elementary School (Fayette County) for two years. She couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else.
“[Picadome’s] diversity is what really sparked my interest,” she said. “Their classroom culture, their relationships with the parents, the other teachers; it’s just an overall good culture in the school.”
Stalker, a 5th-grade teacher, completed her undergraduate degree at the UK College of Education in December 2021. From the start, students in the UK education program are embedded in local schools during pre-practicum and practicum classes to practice teaching methods before student teaching, with the guidance of a certified teacher. This experience was priceless to Stalker, who believes the program gave her the hands-on experience necessary to succeed as a first-year teacher.
“You can learn it through a piece of paper and pencil, but really you are going to learn it more hands-on,” she said. “Having that experience in a classroom was much more beneficial because I saw it firsthand. I saw kids react to the lessons, both positively and negatively.”
The program was the brainchild of then-Picadome Principal Jennifer Hutchison, now serving as Fayette County Public Schools’ chief school leadership officer, and Joni Meade, UK College of Education clinical faculty and practicum/student teaching coordinator. Cindy Jong, associate professor of mathematics at the UK College of Education, also assists with the program.
Students in the embed program learn a concept on Monday morning and then implement the concept at their separate placements during the school week as opposed to not working with a set of student or a classroom continuously until they student teach.
“Being in a university community, it is essential to tap into that resource,” said Hutchison. “This was an open dialogue and communication between a school and the university of college of education faculty,” said Hutchison. “How can we both make this better to grow the best student teachers. For the university to invest in the community, that’s critical.”
With Picadome’s success “grown on the back of literacy and math,” Hutchinson said school leaders began to strategize on how to continue that growth.
“We started talking about what could be a more authentic experience, which is [college] students being in a place for a longer period of time, getting to know the school culture, being able to be taught theory and research, best practices on campus, but then implementing those in the real world,” she said.
Currently, UK elementary embed students are placed in four Fayette County schools.
Cassidy Winstel is a senior at UK majoring in elementary education. She participated in the embed program at Picadome before her Fall 2022 2nd-grade student teaching placement.
“The embed program allowed me to have hands-on experience in the classroom. Going into student teaching, I felt prepared for what I was going to face,” she said. “I was able to teach a unit with my classmates that is like one required during student teaching. This gave me the practice and confidence I needed to teach a successful math unit on my own during student teaching.”
The program is a win-win for current Picadome Principal Tiffany Cook, who is sometimes able to hire students who worked at the elementary school.
“A huge benefit of highly qualified staff is that we all start with the same foundational skills. We don’t have to spend time teaching teachers the basics,” she said. “We can truly begin to analyze and dissect these formative assessments to accelerate and enrich learning. Teachers that have been through the embed program have these basics and we can get into deeper learning quicker to increase student achievement.”
The embed program and student teaching get UK students into Picadome, but it’s the school culture that keeps them there after graduation.
Amaurielle Lewis, a kindergarten teacher, graduated from UK in May 2021. Before accepting a job at Picadome, Lewis already had completed observation hours and participated in the embed program.
Lewis was drawn to teaching because as the oldest of five siblings, she remembers teaching her siblings as they were growing up. Now, Lewis feels that same sense of family at Picadome.
“I love this community,” she said
UK students also are plugged into Picadome’s community in the summer through a reading and enrichment opportunity with Picadome’s refugee families and students. Meade believes this opportunity helps UK graduates because they know what it is like to collaborate with families as an educator.
“They are stronger candidates when they are immersed in the community,” said Meade.
University of Kentucky College of Education Growth
The embed program in Fayette County Schools depends upon the relationship with UK, which has seen significant growth in the past four years and is currently leading the state and the nation in teacher education preparation program enrollment.
Preliminary data from the UK College of Education shows the fall 2022 enrollment of students majoring in teacher preparation programs has increased 83% compared to fall 2019. Freshman students of color increased 275% in UK’s teacher education programs during that same period.
Julian Vasquez Heilig, the dean of the UK College of Education, said the plan is “an ecology of hope and action.” He said UK’s College of Education is focused on helping students see teaching as a viable, lifetime profession.
“It really takes the heart of a teacher to be prepared for the challenges in the classroom,” said Heilig, who has been named as Western Michigan University’s next provost and vice president for academic affairs. “We say that teachers are the first responders to our nation’s poverty. Truly, they are. We do our best to appeal to Generation Z and encouraging the fact that their generation, more than the ones before them, want to leave a legacy.”
Part of the university’s strategy is key faculty hires. The number of faculty of color in the UK College of Education also increased over the past three years and the college achieved its highest-ever ranking by “U.S. News and World 2023 Report.”
“The College of Education is on your team far beyond your years at the university. I have kept in contact with multiple professors, reached out to them for support or ideas, met them over dinner just to share how teaching is going, and now have the opportunity to work with them in mentoring the newest teacher candidates,” said Kaylie Zander, a 1st-grade teacher at Picadome and 2019 UK graduate.
Between strong curriculum and faculty, the UK College of Education also works to connect with Generation Z. It taps into social media to show students “Day in the Life” videos of students going to class, going to their practicum assignment and involvement in extra-curricular activities. They provide ample opportunities for one-on-one faculty small-group Zoom chats and have even streamed on Twitch, an interactive livestreaming service.
“The College of Education does a great job of immersing students into real life experiences,” said Zander. “We were given so many opportunities to ease into the classroom, build our confidence and develop our own teaching styles.”