Price Lab Closing Could Lead to Stronger Programs for Students

By Diane Heldt, Reporter

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - The training model that replaced field experiences at Malcolm Price Lab School for University of Northern Iowa teacher-education students is a work in progress, faculty and officials say, but some believe the new system will result in more classroom interaction and mentoring for UNI students.

Price Lab, a prekindergarten-through-12th-grade research and development school operated by the university, was shuttered in June in a budget-cutting move that drew protests and a lawsuit. This fall is the first semester that all UNI teacher-education students are getting their classroom field experiences through the Professional Development School model, which the university started piloting in 2007.

That model uses partnerships with area schools, mostly in Cedar Falls and Waterloo, to offer field experience placements for students with "mentor teachers" in area classrooms. Faculty members who were Price Lab teachers now act as field experience coordinators in those schools, to be resources for the UNI students working there and for the K-12 teachers, officials said.

And in addition to the mentor teachers and field experience coordinators, UNI students also can seek help from their professors on campus and a teacher who serves as a site coordinator at each school.

The changes feel a little like "building the plane while we're flying it," but university officials think the multiple layers of support are a big benefit to this model, said Becky Hawbaker, field experience coordinator for the department of teaching.

"It gives the students many sources of support and guidance," she said. "It brings a whole network, a team of people, to enrich the experience for the UNI student."

There is some frustration at this early stage about university faculty members feeling like guests at their K-12 school sites rather than part of the team, Hawbaker said, but she's confident those relationships will be built over time.

In this first year, the transition is focused mostly on placing UNI education students, supporting them and giving them feedback, College of Education Dean Dwight Watson said. But the aspiration is to eventually add a focus on professional development for teachers in those schools.

"So if the knowledge bases and skill sets need to be talked about and crafted with the mentor teachers, the field coordinator can work within that school to have these professional developments," Watson said.

The UNI field experience coordinator also is a conduit back to the university, to pass on any school practices that can be implemented for campus-based programs, he said.

"We want this to be a two-way sort of professional development model," Watson said.

One of the biggest pieces that had to be replaced from the Price Lab School was "level two" field experiences for UNI students; about 600 of them annually had been getting that training at Price Lab. Under the new model, the university is working with 26 schools in Cedar Falls and Waterloo to provide that training in area classrooms.

Jarith Witt, a second-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Cedar Falls, had for many years played host to level one UNI education students and student teachers in her classroom, but this is her first year serving as a mentor teacher for level two students under the new model. Level two students must spend 25 hours over six weeks in a classroom.

Witt said she likes having another adult in the room on a consistent basis who can work with small groups of students while she does the same.

"They are learning all sorts of things up on campus, then they bring what they learn here and try to put that into practice in the classroom," Witt said.

UNI junior Sara Cartney said the new model seems reflective of the classroom settings she and her fellow students will encounter once they become teachers. Cartney, 20, from Hudson, is doing her level two field experience in a fifth-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary, where she spends about two hours, three days a week.

After the news last spring that Price Lab would close, Cartney worried about how those training programs for UNI students would be replaced. But she said she feels she gets a lot of one-on-one time with her mentor teacher and is a part of the classroom under the new model.

"Being with that mentor teacher, he has given me real experiences, letting me know the backgrounds on the kids, how they are different," she said.
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