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Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- On Nov. 30, nearly 500 veteran Louisiana teachers will start months of periodic training statewide on how to assist aspiring teachers -- residents -- who essentially serve as their co-teachers for the school year.

Travis Spradling

Louisiana is overhauling the way teachers are trained for the classroom, and Ashton Griggs is part of the first wave.

Griggs is a first-year teacher at Pecan Grove Primary School in Gonzales.

But unlike most of her colleagues, she spent a full school year beforehand as a resident teacher working alongside a classroom veteran who served as her mentor before entering the profession.

Griggs got to see firsthand all the planning that goes into running a classroom, how to meet with parents during an open house, and how to keep students' behavior under control.

Aspiring teachers learn how to read school data, set up standardized tests and organize a field trip.

"We got to see every single thing that happens the whole school year," Griggs said.

While similar pilot programs have been going on since 2014, the push to revamp teacher training is about to move into high gear.

On Nov. 30 nearly 500 veteran teachers will start months of periodic training statewide on how to assist aspiring teachers, called residents, who essentially serve as their co-teachers for the school year. Most of the training is provided at the university level, though some private companies also train teachers.

Starting in July, all of the more than two dozen Louisiana teacher preparation programs will include a yearlong residency, a big jump from what now is sometimes just 12 weeks of student teaching before graduation. State officials hope to have 2,500 mentor teachers in place by 2020.

Louisiana is believed to be one of just two states – South Dakota is the other – to require such residencies.

So far 850 future teachers have taken part in trial residency programs, working with more than 820 veteran instructors.

Aspiring teachers were in front of more than 11,000 students during the 2016-17 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

The change stems from a simple complaint.

Lots of teachers say they were not prepared to run their first class on entering the workforce.

Hannah Dietsch, assistant state superintendent of education for talent, said the research is clear on the benefits of aspiring teachers getting more real-world experience. "Greater success in the classroom with their students, and greater likelihood that those teachers will stay in the classroom," Dietsch said.

Educators said working with a veteran teacher for an entire school year amounts to on-the-job-training.

"It is almost like they are interviewing all year for a job," said Amy Champagne, principal at the Ascension Parish school where Griggs is a first-grade teacher.

The new training methods were approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education 13 months ago.

BESE endorsed the overhaul 6-5, and backers had to overcome opposition from Gov. John Bel Edwards and leaders of traditional school groups who raised cost and other concerns.

Revamping how teachers are trained has not been without glitches.

Rural districts are having trouble testing the changes because of the lack of nearby colleges and universities.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said she is concerned about the quality of the new training when it is overseen by private providers, not universities. BESE has limitied ability to ensure that those firms are adhering to the new rules, including regular oversight by mentor teachers, she added.

But after some initial concerns, the state Board of Regents backed the changes.

"We have been receiving positive feedback from the candidates," said Jeanne Burns, associate commissioner for Teacher and Leadership Initiatives. "They feel that they are getting a better perspective of what needs to occur from the beginning of the year right through the end of the year."

Under the new system, mentors will be paid $1,000 and teacher candidates $2,000.

Longtime advocates contend the move to a new training method is a no-brainer.

"Why would anyone want a teacher who is going to take care of their children for an entire school year not have an experience in the fall and the winter and the spring?" asked Amy Massey Vessel, executive director of the Louisiana Tech Clinical Residency Center, which trains mentors.

Stacey-Ann Barrett, an educator in Plaquemines Parish, made a similar point.

"You need to see the inner workings from the very beginning of school," Barrett said.

Barrett served as a mentor to a teacher hopeful when she was a fourth-grade teacher at Boothville-Venice Elementary School.

When she did classroom planning, her understudy did too.

When teachers had professional development, the resident was right there.

Barrett, now a principal at South Plaquemines Elementary School, said having the student teacher in the classroom that year made things easier in a class of 30 youngsters.

"It was like having another set of hands, eyes and ears," she said.

Serena White, an educator in northeast Louisiana, has seen the new training as both a professional and parent. White is the supervisor of curriculum and instruction in the Monroe City School District, which used some of its own funds to help test out the new training.

In the first year, the district had three teacher candidates. Two of them landed full-time jobs with the school system.

"We would have hired the third, but she planned to return to her home district," White said.

White said her son Brunson, a third grader, benefits from having a first-year science and social studies teacher who went through the resident training. She said that teacher is "head and shoulders" ahead of a typical rookie teacher.

Brunson's math class includes a teacher mentor and an aspiring teacher serving as a resident. "I notice they are able to meet the different abilities within the group because there are two of them,' White said.

Vessel made the same point.

"The power behind the residency is you have two teachers in the classroom working with those children, giving that certified teacher so many one-on-one teaching opportunities for our state's children," she said.

Burns said colleges and universities have embraced the overhaul in part because BESE is offering flexibility for campuses to comply with the new rules.

"The reaction that we are getting from the campuses is that they are finding that the residencies are working out much better than they had anticipated," she said.

Griggs said her yearlong training made the move to being a full-time teacher easier.

"I would have been way more stressed out," she said.  

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.