As principal of a small Southeast Baltimore school, Anthony Ruby has guided an array of first-year teachers, from the stars who seem to have an innate sense of how to handle a class to those who were so ineffective he declined to renew their contracts.
When teachers aren't effective, he said, "it is not fair to our kids," many of whom are low-income and immigrant.
Hundreds of teachers are hired each year to fill vacancies in Baltimore, and the majority will be newcomers to the profession. In urban districts, where many are assigned to teach children with some of the greatest challenges, the national burnout rate is astonishing. Fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first three years.
For years, former Baltimore school administrator Jennifer Green watched struggling teachers with lots of will but little skill, and came to believe one major obstacle to improving schools was the high turnover rate and inexperienced teachers. Eventually, she hatched a potential solution, and in 2009, she and a colleague quit their jobs and started the Baltimore-based Urban Teacher Center.
The idea: Green would reach out to principals hampered each year by the next new crop of young, beginner teachers fumbling their way through their first few years of teaching. For $20,000 from the principals, she would dispatch a recent college graduate who would spend the first year as a resident helping in an experienced teacher's classroom.
In return, the resident would get valuable mentoring while taking graduate classes and have a shot at being hired as a full-time teacher the following year. They would continue to work while earning a master's from Lesley University, a private college in Cambridge, Mass.
"The genesis of what I hope will become a national model was born out of my experiences in Baltimore," Green said.
Ruby at Holabird Academy was one of the principals Green approached. He saw it as a bargain.
"We look for any way we can to get more qualified adults working with students for an extended period of time. The more positive adult interactions kids have, the better they do in school," he said. "I can afford four full-time residents for what is still $10,000 less than a teacher."
He also has used residents from the Urban Teacher Center to staff summer school and as substitutes.
The prospective teachers get the chance to try out the profession and make a few mistakes under a watchful eye before taking on the full responsibility of a classroom, and Ruby gets a pipeline of potential hires in which he has more confidence.
In the past four years, 130 residents from the Urban Teacher Center have signed up for the four-year commitment to city schools, which includes one year of a residency and three years of teaching.
As part of the program, teachers are required to prove their effectiveness in the classroom before moving to the next year.
About 80 percent of teachers in their first year in the classroom produce student achievement gains that are equal to those of regular second-year teachers, according to teacher center data. And the Urban Teacher Center guarantees students taught by one of their teachers will make a full year's worth of academic gains, more progress than many urban teachers whose students often perform at below grade level in reading and math.
"We wanted to try to guarantee that when we let people into the classroom, that these people were really proficient at being able to teach and advance student achievement," Green said.
As American education leaders search for ways to build better teachers, some have argued the focus should be on more rigorous selection and training of teachers. Instead, many states have emphasized weeding out ineffective teachers through an evaluation system that grades them in part on student test scores.
Supporters of that first approach point to other countries where student achievement has surpassed that of the United States.
Finland, for instance, has shown gains in student achievement far beyond the United States after reducing the number of college education programs, selecting candidates with higher grade-point averages and making training more rigorous, according to a best-selling book that compares education in the highest-achieving countries in the world to the U.S.
Borrowing from some of those principles, the Urban Teacher Center is selective: only 25 percent of applicants are chosen for the four-year program. And a teacher's training includes more clinical practice than many college programs.
The teacher center is just one of a growing number of residency programs across the country that are trying different training models, much in the same way doctors are trained at hospitals by learning from more experienced colleagues.
In that way, Holabird Academy has now become the equivalent of a teaching hospital. This fall, Ruby's staff of 30 teachers will be aided by four residents as well as six interns from a local college.
The Urban Teacher Center has 123 teachers in 76 schools across Baltimore and 200 teachers in 41 schools in Washington. It hopes to expand into Chicago next year, as well as four more cities in five years. Other similar residencies are flourishing in cities such as Boston, Minneapolis and Miami.
But a question remains about whether these small boutique programs will spread, largely because they are expensive for both the candidates and the school systems.
Most alternative education programs guarantee a paying job immediately after college. For example, the popular Teach for America program provides teachers a summer of training and by fall a job earning $47,500 as a first-year teacher in a Baltimore school.
In the Urban Teacher Center program, participants may need to take out student loans and live frugally during the first year of residency when they are unpaid.
"I haven't received a paycheck in 11 months," said Alex Bodaken, who will begin his first year as a classroom teacher at Holabird in the fall. "We live with roommates and eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly."
But Bodaken believes the sacrifice was worth the benefit of learning under a good teacher. He said he "learned more from my host teachers than my course work ... the nuts and bolts of how to plan a lesson, how to deal with kids. You get to see someone do it."
David Wise, in his second year with the program, said other routes into the profession "don't have the one year of mirroring an effective teacher. That helps you a lot."
With the first class of UTC graduates, the attrition rate is about the same as the national average. But the retention rate has improved to 82 percent with the second class of teachers, who just completed their third year in the program.
Green said it costs the Urban Teacher Center $48,000 to cover costs such as graduate school tuition, health insurance and mentoring over four years for each candidate. The school pays nearly half for the resident for a year, and the rest is raised by the Urban Teacher Center.
The nonprofit center has a $7 million annual budget. It has received donations from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation of Baltimore.
With Lesley University, the teacher center created a new master's in education program. Every UTC student is doubly certified in special education and either elementary or secondary education.
Some education experts say there may be resistance to paying the cost of teacher training up front, as is required by a residency program. But, some say, the cost of recruiting, selecting and training teachers every year may be just as high. About half of Baltimore teachers have five years or less experience in the classroom.
"There is a front-loading concept to teacher residency programs that is the antithesis of how ed reform and teacher prep has worked in the nation," said Anissa Listak, executive director of Urban Teacher Residency United, which has residency programs serving 29 school districts. She said residencies may save school districts money — and improve teacher quality.
Bodaken said he is worried about having his own classroom next school year but believes he has become a better teacher and is prepared.
"You would be crazy not to be scared," he said.
Although schools of education are in competition with some of the alternative certification programs for students, some of the schools like what they see in the residency model.
"I think it is a wonderful idea," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the former Maryland school superintendent who now works at Towson University's school of education. "To have them come in and get acclimated with a teacher is a wonderful way for teachers in Baltimore to start. Really smart."