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Catch 'em young

It happens in the US first: to solve teacher shortages, they've started a specialist school to train the next generation. Eighty classroom wannabes as young as 14 have enrolled. Stephen Phillips reports

Struggling to keep pace with insatiable demand for new teachers, education officials in Arizona are about to open a pioneering school just for prospective teachers. It will open its gates in downtown Phoenix in September.

Eighty 14 to 21-year olds with their sights set on a career in the classroom are expected to enrol at Teacher Preparation Charter High School. The academy will be run by Maricopa County's 10 community colleges, two of which, Phoenix and South Mountain Community, have devised a special curriculum.

As well as regular lessons, students will shadow local teachers, learn the latest computer-aided classroom techniques and have the chance to earn credit`s towards a university teacher-certification qualification.

The school already has White House blessing. Eugene Hickok, the Under Secretary of Education, dropped by last month to peruse the plans. The initiative also carries the hopes of education authorities across America who hope that Phoenix has hit upon a further pipeline for tomorrow's school staff.

An expected 2.4 million new recruits will be needed to plug gaps in today's greying teaching force - half the staff in US schools are expected to retire over the next decade. On top of that, pupil numbers are swelling.

Arizona's plight epitomises that of many American states. Located in the southwestern Sun Belt, it has been in the grip of explosive population growth for decades. A projected 20,000 new teachers are needed by 2012 to cope with the continuing influx of so-called snowbirds - migrants from frigid northern states - who continue to flock to Arizona for its balmy climate and family-friendly environment.

Watching the staff pinch tighten, Fred Gaskin, chancellor of Phoenix's Maricopa County Community College District, wondered whether community colleges could play more of a role in teacher preparation.

An opening was provided by new laws sweeping the US since the early 1990s permitting the setting up of independent state schools. So-called charter schools are run by companies, parents, teachers or churches, using taxpayers' money. The idea is that they have wider latitude than regular schools to use innovative methods to improve education. To date, 2,300 have sprung up nationally; Arizona is in the vanguard of the movement.

To get the teacher training academy on its feet, the colleges have coughed up around $150,000 (pound;97,000), after which funding from public coffers is expected to kick in. Administrators are sifting 60 or so applications for the post of headteacher and plan to hire four teachers. Mr Gaskin is bullish that enrolment will quickly swell beyond the initial intake as marketing efforts in local schools stoke interest.

What pupils will be signing up for is a hothouse for wannabe teachers. The emphasis is on hands-on instruction, students being mentored by working teachers and sitting in on classes at local schools.

The practical bent addresses a serious shortcoming of undergraduate teacher training courses, explains Ken Atwater, president of South Mountain Community College. "One of the things we've found is that when people start teaching they haven't had the opportunity to interact with teachers until the (second or third) year of college," he says.

It also better prepares pupils for the actual rigours of the classroom, says Fred Gaskin. "There will be experience in actual schools, so they'll get a good feeling about the profession and say to themselves, 'This is something I want to do.' By contrast, at traditional education (colleges) you don't see students until the end of four-year (courses)."

Students will also be put through their paces on the latest computing equipment to prepare for tomorrow's online classrooms.

They will have the opportunity to earn up to 24 credits towards an undergraduate degree - that's equivalent to almost a year's attendance at a US university.

"It's a leg-up for college as well," says Mr Gaskin.

One institution where students might wind up after leaving the school is Arizona State University. Its associate dean for teacher education, Carlos Ovando, notes that the initiative borrows from so-called "Future Teachers Clubs" popular in many US schools decades ago.

Elongating apprenticeships at a special school before higher education teacher training courses may help staff retention, Mr Ovando says. Fast-track schemes don't always last, he says. "They (fast-track teachers) go through the pipeline very fast but when they get to the classroom, they can't handle the instructional and behavioural complexities."

However, he is concerned about targeting adolescents at a formative stage of development.

"They are creating an environment for people who want to become teachers to focus on pedagogical issues, but it is a life decision for highly-impressionable kids who may end up narrowing their options."

Teenage fickleness could render the new school vulnerable to a high drop-out rate as pupils change their mind about teaching. After all, one in five of new adult US recruits to the profession quits within three years. Newcomer attrition runs at a staggering 50 per cent in urban schools. Arizona already has one of America's highest pupil drop-out rates : 12.2 per cent in 1998-9.

Mr Gaskin counters that in his experience students with precise goals are more likely to stay the course."We're going to show them a precise roadmap."

They will be offered extensive counselling so they know exactly what attending the school entails and don't enrol frivolously.

"We'll be up-front and advise them on what they're getting into," he says.

In the same vein, Rio Salado College, also in Maricopa County, recently branched into offering teacher certification courses over the internet to graduates. In just one year, 1,600 wannabe teachers have passed through its virtual portals.

Whether Teacher Preparation Charter High School achieves such popularity or is just a well-intentioned gimmick remains to be seen.

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