Evelyn Brand traveled to Houston in January 2017 with her eyes wide open.
A junior Elementary Education major at the time, Brand’s senses crackled from “how much Houston has to offer,” from its metropolitan culture and world-class Italian and Mexican restaurants to its warm winter weather.
“The staff was so friendly, the students were hard-working and the atmosphere in general was very positive and family-oriented, which really drew me into considering teaching here,” says Brand, who graduated from the NIU College of Education last May.
“When we left, I was like, ‘OK, I really enjoyed this experience,’ ” she adds. “In the spring of this past year, when a lot of teaching jobs started to open up, I decided that I wanted to move to a different state.”
She is also one of eight former Educate U.S. participants currently teaching in HISD, the largest district in Texas with more than 280 campuses, nearly 215,000 students and more than 100 languages. About 75 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.
NIU’s alumni contingent in the Space City, some 1,055 miles south of DeKalb, confirms that the program is succeeding in presenting teacher-licensure candidates with the kinds of hands-on experiences that lead to good, full-time employment.
“Our participants are always so graciously welcomed to the HISD family through their homestays with teachers and administrators and by their mentor teachers,” says Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development for the NIU College of Education.
“Many keep in touch and have developed not just collaborative and/or mentoring relationships but friendships that can make considering another state for employment upon graduation more appealing,” she adds. “Houston also has a high teacher retention rate, which means that our students see happy teachers.”
David Walker, associate dean for Academic Affairs, has proof in numbers.
“The data that Educate U.S. students provide the college in the post-experience program evaluation indicates that their experiences in Houston schools and the community were very positive,” Walker says, “their commitment to teach as a chosen profession has increased, and that for some students relocation to Houston post-graduation is a very tangible career choice.”
Launched in March of 2014 with Houston’s Aldine Independent School District, Educate U.S. began with 18 juniors from the departments of Curriculum and Instruction, Kinesiology and Physical Education and Special and Early Education.
Educate U.S. helps progress and further educate teacher-candidates in critical developmental areas such as teaching strategies, lesson planning, classroom management, parent-teacher experiences and working in diverse educational settings.
Most former participants have sampled teaching and learning in a true urban setting: HISD, which partnered with Educate U.S. in January of 2016, enjoys the opportunity to share information about its district and to connect with future educators.
“We really value the program and partnership with Houston in its current format and find great student learning and experiential value derived from this set of experiences,” Walker says.
“Some areas where we would like to expand the program in the near future are applying what has been learned over time in Houston to potential curricular expansion within courses of programs of study as part of continuing development and informed practices,” he adds. “Additionally, we would like to infuse a research component from a faculty participation perspective to add a data-informed dimension to the program.”
Andrew Papke, senior recruiter/talent acquisition for HISD, calls the thriving partnership a “win-win.”
“Educate U.S. seeks to find teachers who want to make a difference with students in an urban environment, and who may not have the opportunity to experience that locally,” Papke says.
“The rigorous application process screens candidates so that NIU and HISD both know that we are seeing the best of the best from the COE,” he adds. “Our district’s goals and vision align with the preparation at the university, which makes the experience that much more beneficial for the candidates to really put what they are learning into practice.”
For Courtney Rieb, a senior Elementary Education major, that time is now.
Rieb has returned to Texas this spring for her student-teaching. It’s thanks to her quick taste of HISD last January through Educate U.S., which she calls “an opportunity to experience something outside of Illinois and to see what another culture and lifestyle are like.”
“Growing up in Illinois, and then going on to college in Illinois, when there are just so many opportunities available, especially for teachers,” Rieb says, “I just thought, ‘Why not take advantage of this dynamic experience while I have the support of my university?’ ”
During Educate U.S., she spent her week at Sinclair, loving not only the weather but also the enthusiasm of the teachers for the Lone Star State: “People who are from Texas are passionate to be from Texas and want to be from Texas. It’s very cool to see how invested they are in teaching Texas history,” she says.
For student-teaching, however, she chose Mark Twain Elementary, an international baccalaureate world school. NIU classmate Jessica Dyra is student-teaching there as well.
“I picked this school because I knew I was going to get a new kinds of experience, and I was going to get a global perspective,” Rieb says.
“We’re working on understanding things from multiple perspectives and honoring cultural diversity. Houston is unlike other cities in Texas. It’s a very diverse city, with lots of people who come to Houston to work at the medical center, bringing with them their families and their children, who attend the schools. My classroom is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Although her Mark Twain tenure is young, Rieb is excited with the journey so far.
“I have so much to learn from these other teachers who are so experienced. It’s been really cool to bounce ideas off of them. Collaborating is great for new ideas and for bringing my perspective as well,” she says. “I’ve already heard in the short two weeks that I’ve been here that we at NIU are more prepared to take on responsibilities and more prepared to take on clinical experiences.”
Her NIU preparation shines in Houston in other ways, especially the multicultural philosophies she learned in the courses for ESL endorsement.
“Diversity. Having empathy. Really listening to students. Those have been the biggest influences on me,” she says. “I’m working right now with two students from China who aren’t too proficient with the language yet. I sit with them and work with them and I’m understanding of them; we’re celebrating the small victories they have every day.”
Brand, now in her second full-time semester as a professional teacher, is reveling in those same rewards at Sutton, a dual-language school.
“Their brains are little sponges. I love that excitement they have for discovering new things and new ideas; you can build their knowledge so much at that young age,” Brand says. “The growth you see in the first-grade is really exciting and that, for me, is really what keeps me going – when you see that they get it, when that light bulb goes off.”
She remains thankful for the Educate U.S. experience that brought her here.
“I’m so grateful to the people who’ve donated to make that possible; I’m just one of the many people who actually decided to get a job down here,” she says. “Any experience in a classroom is wonderful, and these people have provided an opportunity to go someplace else and see what opportunities are like in different places. I’m not so sure that if I hadn’t had that week that I would know what it was like here in Houston and ended up teaching here.”
Her reunion with Papke at the Educators Job Fair last year sealed the deal.
Calling him “a very positive person who really sold HISD to us,” Brand later joined Papke on a two-day tour of eight schools in Houston. She felt at home at Sutton, which subsequently gave her an interview and a job.
“I see myself being here for a while,” Brand says. “I’m very happy where I’m at. I love my school.”
That’s what Papke loves to hear, especially from an NIU Educate U.S. alum.
He, his wife and their daughter serve as a host family each January, creating lifelong relationships with their visitors from DeKalb. Watching the NIU students in classroom action during that week is “priceless,” he says, and “renews my ‘why.’ ”
“Whether it was for a week, eight weeks or even a full semester, our candidates can envision themselves as part of a family. Overall, our students are the ones who make the biggest impact with the candidates to the point they don’t want to leave when the week is over,” Papke says.
“Being a transplant from Iowa myself, I can comment firsthand how different the educational experience is in Houston compared to the Midwest. What first begins as a dream becomes a reality when you join Team HISD,” he adds.
“First-year teachers receive professional training in our four-day New Teacher Academy prior to their first days on the campus. We invest the time and money at the beginning of the school year to ensure a successful start to the school year.”
Reports from the trenches about NIU’s alums are glowing.
The roster of Huskie alums includes Ryan Aylward, Kylee Bier, Brand, Mike Davis, Ryan Hartigan, Jack Medard, Sara Matuszak and Makayla Schenkel.
“NIU COE graduates come prepared to hit the ground running their first year in HISD,” Papke says. “Our teacher recruitment department receives positive feedback from administration about their swift progress in the district, even referring to them as ‘veteran teachers’ just in their first years with the district. We are also excited to learn that some of the alums are seeking their master’s degrees in administration to help lead our district.”
Jennifer Johnson also has heard those good reviews – and hopes that the strong connection can yield future Huskies from Texas.
“We know our candidates leave a lasting impression on the students they serve while they are in Houston. I have seen and heard HISD students, teachers, and administrators praise our NIU candidates and their ability to connect in the classroom,” Johnson says.
“It would be awesome to see HISD graduates so positively impacted by our candidates that they not only would want to become teachers,” she adds, “but would consider doing so at Northern Illinois University.”