Teachers-in-training learn along with students at summer camps

Dissecting a fetal pig. Converting a mousetrap into a car. Turning the story of Brer Rabbit into a talk show. Debating the merits of animal captivity.

Welcome to summer school at Belaire High School.

“When I was in school, we only dissected frogs,” said Susan Louis, a tinge of envy in her voice.

Louis is the site coordinator for the Belaire chapter of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge. Since 1981, the organization has held summer enrichment camps at local schools for inner city children.

This year, three of the organization’s eight camps — Belaire, as well as Greenbrier Elementary and Park Forest Middle schools — have been given over for part of the day to 42 teachers-in-training who are being monitored by 15 master teachers. They are educating 200 of the children in all the summer camps. The children apply to participate and there are no academic requirements, though applications are opened up first to children already participating in Boys & Girls Club programs.

The teachers-in-training, known as practitioner teachers, are gaining certification through the alternative certification program Certification Solutions.

The master teachers all went through the program as well, which began training teachers in 2003.

“They have been hand-picked to serve in this role based upon their demonstrated teaching ability and their ability to coach and serve as an effective model for program participants,” said Jaime Finane, director of Certification Solutions.

Another 66 practitioner teachers are working in traditional summer schools in school districts outside of Baton Rouge because many don’t live in Baton Rouge, Finane said.

LRCE did a small version of this program a year ago at one school, serving 100 students and training 23 new teachers

Louis said the Boys & Girls camps have long featured educational activities, but not like this.

“This kicks it up a very big notch,” Louis said.

The summer is when programs like Certification Solutions — it’s an arm of the better known Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, which loans instructional materials and offers after-hours classes to educators throughout the state — give their new teachers a taste of what they are going to confront come the start of the new school year in August.

“I came in cold,” recalled Van Decoteau, a master teacher in social studies and one-time financial advisor whose first job was at a private school that didn’t require certification.

“It would have been worth the money to go through a program like this,” said Decoteau, who four years later did just that and is now teaching for the online Louisiana Connections Academy.

Will Robicheaux, a master teacher in science, said working with the Boys & Girls Club is preferable to sending prospective teachers to traditional summer schools. Summer schools typically focus on prepping kids to retake standardized tests or allowing them to make up courses they flunked or missed.

Robicheaux, a science teacher at Madison Preparatory Academy in Baton Rouge, said summer school teachers often rely on online instruction, leaving practitioner teachers little to do. Classes with traditional in-person instruction are run by a wide range of teachers, some offering little support, he said.

“They have the support here they would never get elsewhere,” Robicheaux said.

Jeanne Sinagra, who plans to teach biology this fall, offered another plus of working with an enrichment program as opposed to a traditional summer school.

“These kids want to be here,” she said. “They’re not forced to be here.”

Before teaching, AndrĂ©s Serna worked different fields, including spending years in radio. He describes himself as completely green. He’s long enjoyed history, his college major. Shifting from speaking on air to speaking to a group of easily bored teenagers has been a challenge.

“You have to entertain then engage, talk at their level, not too high, not too low,” he said.

The Boys & Girls Club funds its end of it with a $540,000 federal 21st Century grant for after-school programs. LRCE is covering the additional costs and raised $95,000 through corporate sponsorships and grants, money being used to pay for the 15 master teachers and for two site administrators. The six donors are The Huey & Angelina Wilson Foundation, The William Edwin Montan Charitable Trust, Dow, ExxonMobil, The E.J. & Marjory B. Ourso Family Foundation, and The Boo Grigsby Foundation. LRCE is hoping to double the size of the partnership in the future.

The students are in classes Monday through Thursday during the four weeks of June. Three days are spent in the classroom and the focus is on hands-on, engaging activities. There are field trips every Thursday. Trips thus far have included the USS Kidd, the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, the State Capitol and the Baton Rouge Zoo.

The master teachers map out the plan, then ask the teachers-in-training to carry it out. Throughout, the master teachers lay out the pluses and minuses of what they’re seeing, but they also have formal debriefings at the end of each day and a full Friday of teacher training at LRCE.

Mary Allen, an LRCE advisor to practitioner teachers, on Tuesday sat off to the side of a math class filling out a checklist. Her list draws from Compass, Louisiana’s teacher evaluation system. As she watched practitioner teacher Landon Braud giving an algebra lesson Tuesday, she was looking to see how coherent he was: Did he have a good introduction to hook kids in? Did he understand what he was talking about? Did he close well?

She also knew that new teachers start out tentative — “They’ve never done this before,” she said — but improve with repetition.

“By the fourth block, he’ll be much more confident and polished,” Allen said.

LaMeeka Lee just a year ago started teaching English at East Feliciana High School in Jackson. She worked as a paraprofessional and a teller for Loomis, the armored car company, before trying teaching. She urged her practitioner teachers Tuesday to work with rather than fight teenage restlessness.

“They don’t like to just sit and listen,” she said. “They want to get up and move around.”

Robicheaux said he’s not bothered that the summer classes involve near ideal conditions, different from the classes practitioner teachers will take over this fall.

“It’s better than being baptized by fire,” he said.

He said too often, teachers are told about successful teachers, but don’t get to taste success themselves before being let loose on children.

“It never goes that well,” he said. “You start your job and you feel horrible.”

Robicheaux also emphasized that the summer classes are good for the children taking them.

“We had a lot of kids who’ve come up to us and said, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’” Robicheaux said.

Sinagra earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and studied nursing. She finally came around to teaching — “I come from a long line of educators,” she said — and has already been able to recognize in her short time at Belaire the truth of what her relatives are telling her.

“They told me that it’s hard, it takes up a lot of your time but it’s really rewarding,” she said. “You can see it on their faces. The light goes on.”