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SPRINGDALE -- The state Board of Education on Thursday granted the Fort Smith School District a waiver allowing it to move forward with a program aimed at recruiting and retaining teachers.

The district intends to hire two student-teacher interns from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for the full academic year instead of what's traditionally been a semester-long internship.

Both interns will manage their own classrooms -- in the same school and likely at the same grade level -- under the supervision of a veteran, mentor teacher. The interns will earn half of what a typical first-year teacher is paid. A Fort Smith teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience is making $38,050 this school year.

The mentor teacher will serve as the teacher of record for both classrooms but will be relieved of teaching responsibilities.

The district had to seek a waiver of the state's class size and teaching load to make the program possible. Students technically can't be assigned to an intern teacher, because interns aren't licensed and do not yet have a bachelor's degree, said Martin Mahan, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources and campus support.

Students in both of the intern teachers' classes therefore will be assigned to the mentor teacher -- a load that normally would not be allowed under state regulations.

Fort Smith was able to seek the waiver under Act 1240 of 2015, which allows traditional public school districts to ask the state board for any of the same waivers granted to charter schools serving children who live within those districts. The waiver is granted for five years.

District officials view the Enhanced Internship program as a way to boost teacher preparedness and implement extra support needed for inexperienced teachers to sustain their career.

Nearly one of every four Arkansas teachers leaves the profession within the first three years and about 30 percent leave within five years, according to a 2018 state report.

The report also showed the number of people enrolled in the state's educator preparation programs -- both the traditional and alternative routes -- declined from 6,161 in 2013 to 3,563 last year, a 42 percent drop.

The program will allow the interns to experience all aspects of teaching from the beginning to the end of a school year, Mahan said. He added he'd like to see the program serve as a model for the rest of the state.

The University of West Georgia runs a similar yearlong internship program for education students. Data from that school's program show 33 of 34 interns who completed the internship between 2008 and 2013 are still employed as teachers, according to Fort Smith officials.

Randi House, the 2018 Arkansas teacher of the year and a non-voting board member, said she loves Fort Smith's plan, but recommended the district make sure the mentor teachers receive sufficient training.

"Because mentoring an intern for a few weeks, a few lessons, doesn't look like mentoring a teacher full-time," House said.

One Fort Smith teacher used time allotted for public comment to complain about the district's lack of communication with staff about its plan.

Donella Smither said teachers learned only a week ago the district was applying for the class size waiver -- not from the administration, but from the Department of Education's website. Teachers felt "dismissed and disregarded" by administrators, she said.

"Concern spread quickly among Fort Smith educators, because no one appeared to know anything behind the waiver or how it would affect the district," Smither said.

Jay Barth, board chairman, said Smither's comment reflects a common frustration with the waiver request process.

"If these programs are going to work, they have to have the support of teachers and staff long-term," Barth said.

The waiver granted to Fort Smith is specific to the program.

Metro on 03/15/2019

Print Headline: Fort Smith teacher program gets state's OK

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