WMU News

Master's degree program designed for Oak Park teachers

Feb. 23, 2000

OAK PARK, Mich. -- Western Michigan University has launched a new program with the Detroit area's Oak Park Schools that lets the district's elementary school teachers earn a master's degree tailored to their needs without ever leaving town.

Taking a cue from the auto industry, the Oak Park Project is a needs-based staff development program featuring "just-in-time" delivery. The program, the only one of its kind in Michigan, started last summer and currently serves 32 teachers.

"The difference between this and most programs is that it serves a core group of people from one district," says Ronald Crowell, associate professor of teaching, learning and leadership and project coordinator. "We're asking teachers, 'What do you need? What are your instructional needs to have a better program and to more effectively impact the achievement of kids?' "

Using that approach, the program blends what the district's teachers say they need to learn with the content of the regular master's degree, Crowell says.

"It's designed as a bridge between teacher needs and the course content that we offer in a single district that has its own special needs," he says. "It serves a cohort of teachers that has started the program together and will finish the program together."

Like most school districts, Oak Park has its own identity and unique set of characteristics. The district is on Detroit's north side abutting the city on the south at Eight Mile Road. It serves 3,340 students attending four elementary schools, a middle school and Oak Park High School.

The city of Oak Park is predominantly African American but has a large Chaldean minority. The schools are 68 percent African American and 24 percent Middle Eastern (mostly Chaldean) with a small number of Appalachian whites and immigrants from Vietnam and Russia.

Oak Park teachers will help to steer the program's focus based on what they think best meets their students' academic needs.

Instead of delivering a fixed set of courses, learning is presented in modules united by central themes and sets of skills to be learned, Crowell says. For instance, assessing children's literacy development was an early project objective that brought Beulah Lateef, a specialist in WMU's Reading Recovery program, to the district to work with teachers on a variety of testing methods.

In addition to tailoring the content to the district, the program is designed to turn participants into a community of learners since the same teachers are involved throughout the program. When they complete the program in the summer of 2001, teachers in the program will have earned master's degrees in elementary education.

"Teachers will tell you that one of the big things they get out of a graduate class is a chance to talk to other teachers," Crowell says. "These people are talking to each other and doing similar things all the time."

The district is issuing laptop computers to teachers to foster communication between district teachers and University faculty. A distance education component to deliver some course content via interactive television also is being put in place.

The program grew out of discussions earlier this year involving Dr. Frank Rapley, dean of the WMU College of Education; Oak Park Superintendent Alex Bailey; and Gary Marx, the district's associate superintendent. It has already drawn the attention of several other school districts interested in starting similar "tailor-made" programs, Crowell says.

"I think it's going well," Crowell says. "I think the people feel good about it and they're getting some very useful ideas as well as solid theory."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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