Here We Grow: Elementary Education

Victor E. Photobomber: Students in the first cohort of Elgin Community College transfer students celebrate their Huskie Pride in August 2019 during a fun kickoff ceremony where they began their NIU journeys – and received their OneCards!

One year after Sally Blake arrived to lead the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, she joined in the August 2019 “grand opening” celebration of a new partnership with Elgin Community College to offer NIU’s B.S.Ed. in Elementary Education there.

And she’s still gushing about it.

The students there are so appreciative and eager to come and become an NIU graduate, and that kind of energy spreads. We are really taking into consideration their needs. We have single parents. We have people who wouldn’t ever have been able to come and do this if we hadn’t adjusted and set this program up,” Blake says.

“It’s just like we’ve handed them the world, and, I guess, in a way, we have,” she adds. “If you’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and you’re devoted to it, we’ve said, ‘OK, come on down. We’re going to make sure it happens for you.’ ”

Elgin students, who enroll at ECC for their first two years and then transfer to NIU for the second while two years staying in Elgin for their Huskie coursework, clearly are excited about their accessible path toward combating the teacher shortage.

Fifteen signed on for the first cohort, all of whom remain on track to graduate in May. Twenty more have followed in their footsteps this fall, and another 25 are projected to start next year.

Numbers like those, a hallmark result of Dean Laurie Elish-Piper’s PLEDGE (Partnering to Lead and Empower District-Grown Educators) program, are helping to fuel a rise in the Elementary Education major.

While the overall headcount of 367 this fall is 14% higher than last year, the numbers are up 41% and 13% respectively in the Special Education and Bilingual/ESL emphases affiliated with the Elementary Education degree program.

David Walker and Sally Blake
David Walker and Sally Blake

David Walker, associate dean for Academic Affairs, is not surprised by the encouraging news.

Potential students are aware, Walker says, that NIU has updated its curriculum in accordance with Illinois State Board of Education standards and in response to the voices and suggestions of current majors, clinical supervisors, cooperating teachers and school district administrators.

Those currently enrolled at Elgin Community College, College of DuPage, Waubonsee Community College, Kishwaukee College, Rock Valley College, Sauk Valley Community College and Illinois Valley Community College, meanwhile, are heavily courted with the opportunities awaiting in DeKalb.

“We have cast our net very wide in recruiting new freshman at a diversity of rural, suburban and urban high schools. We have cast our net very wide in recruiting new transfer students through all of the 2+2 articulation agreements we’ve engaged in and continue to engage in,” says Walker, who also credits strong recruitment, marketing and academic advising work behind the scenes.

“Another area we’ve been very good at, which gets to retention, is the cocurricular,” he adds, “particularly in Elementary Education with our Educate Local, U.S. and Global, as well as our Educators Rising club, which we started last year and is really picking up momentum.”

Blake also acknowledges Elish-Piper.

“We have a dean who has enough foresight to realize that things were changing, and that we needed to start working with our colleagues across the region in the community colleges,” Blake says.

“Dean Elish-Piper is looking at how we can no longer just work in isolation. We have to seek out colleagues. We have to recruit. We have to provide better service to our stakeholders,” she adds. “Laurie is very insightful: ‘How do we really serve the community? How do we really collaborate with other institutions? How do we make this a seamless entry?’ Laurie is really the one who has been supporting that vision.”

Christy Schweitzer
Christy Schweitzer

Fortunately, says Christy Schweitzer, NIU also enjoys a solid reputation bolstered by academic expectations that “are certainly high but also realistic and achievable.”

And, Blake adds, school districts know that NIU College of Education graduates, are “exceptional, ready to step into a classroom and ready to hit the ground running.”

“Our program really kind of sells itself,” says Schweitzer, an academic advisor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

“When you put in the quality supports we have, it just gives it that extra piece to really bring those candidates in, keep them, help them graduate and allow them to get that teaching job,” she adds. “And the subsequent additional endorsements within in Elementary Education program are of course going to make our teacher-candidates more marketable, more likely to get a job and more likely to retain their job.”

She also points to NIU’s dynamic curriculum as well as its perfect location, which is close to home for students across the region.

“Just the number of classroom hours that our students get are bar-none to anyone else, and the clinical support is just huge,” Schweitzer says. “Our candidates have a minimum of four sequential semesters of coursework with the coordinating diverse clinical experiences, the final one being student-teaching. It was one of the reasons I chose the NIU Elementary Education program as an undergraduate.”

For future teachers who prepare at NIU, she says, “it’s basically like a job interview when they participate in their clinical experiences. They’re getting to develop relationships with districts that could potentially hire them to work after graduation. It just makes sense. It opens so many doors.”

That’s not necessarily true for students who travel two hours or more from home for college but plan to return home after graduation, adds Schweitzer, who grew up in nearby Lindenwood and taught for 14 years in Shabbona and Rochelle.

“Even though I lived out in the cornfields, I could drive to West Chicago for my clinical placement. That was a great experience for me. I was immersed in a dual-language classroom. I built my résumé. I built my experience, and that classroom experience is what makes a great teacher,” she says.

Elementary Education majors from Elgin “PLEDGE” to smile and to show their Huskie pride as they gathered to launch their NIU journeys in August 2019.

“Before I graduated from NIU, I had four job interviews, and they were all very local – and two of them were from my clinicals,” she adds. “You have to get that relationship early on to really help yourself, not just to get through school but also to see beyond it.”

Teachers clearly are in demand.

More than 4,000 additional educators are currently sought in Illinois alone, and the crisis is mounting year after year.

Elish-Piper’s PLEDGE program helps intentionally while the structure of the Elementary Education major helps organically with its built-in endorsements that students earn without the requirement of extra semesters.

The climbing enrollments in the Bilingual/ESL and Special Education emphases make sense, Blake and Schweitzer say, considering the evolving demographics of the United States and the shortage itself.

“We have so many K-12 students who are Second Language Learners,” Blake says, adding that many of the ECC-transferred licensure-candidates are bilingual. “And Special Education is, of course, another growing area and always an area of need.”

“Both those meet today’s needs in the classroom,” Schweitzer adds. “A lot of school districts will not even consider interviewing a teacher-candidate if they don’t have that ESL endorsement because the need is so great. That’s who they’re looking to hire.”

In the case of the PLEDGE students who began at ECC, Walker says, “many come from very diverse backgrounds and represent the Elgin community quite well.”

Laurie Elish-Piper
Dean Laurie Elish-Piper’s PLEDGE program will help to combat the teacher shortage – and is already off to a great start with the Elementary Education majors who transferred from Elgin Community College. The first cohort will graduate in May 2021.

“A lot of the students will likely go back to the district and become professional teachers, and that says a lot about our relationship with Elgin Community College and the great Elgin community as well as the schools in that community,” he says. “The hard work we’ve put in with partnerships, with supervising, with cooperating teaching and with field-based practices has really paid off – and we’re looking to grow that program.”

Further growth sounds good to Blake and Schweitzer.

“The future belongs in our schools,” Blake says. “Historically, in any country you look at, education is the basis to support where they’re heading culturally and politically.”

NIU Elementary Education graduates are up to the task, she adds: “I have every bit of confidence that when they walk out this door that they’re going to be change-agents,” she says, “and to what needs to be done to support our communities and our country.”

Schweitzer agrees.

“I’m excited because it’s fulfilling such a need in society. I’ve spent my entire career working in the classroom-education setting, and we need good, quality classroom teachers to work with students who are coming from such diverse backgrounds and different life experiences,” she says.

“We need those quality candidates to really shape our next generation, and I just think it’s so exciting to see our numbers going up and to know that there are people still intrinsically motivated to get out there and teach,” she adds. “There is, in my opinion, a no-more-rewarding career than being a teacher.”

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