At a time when concerns are heightened over a national teachers shortage, the University of Chicago is pausing admissions to a longstanding graduate program that prepares teachers to work in urban districts like Chicago Public Schools, prompting a public outcry from students, alumni and educators from around the country.
Staff members say the university has been “phasing out” its groundbreaking Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) for several years, and that it did not admit any new students this fall for the first time in nearly two decades.
“It’s in the university’s own interest to support a program like its own UTEP, rather than casting it aside out of short-sightedness,” said Marvin Hoffman, a retired educator and UChicago employee who helped launch the program in 2003.
About 160 supporters recently signed a letter of protest to university president Paul Alivisatos and other key administrators after Hoffman raised the issue in a blog post this summer. The letter also calls for the university to commit to a series of conversations with alumni and current and former UTEP staff about its future.
“At a time when there are many policies leading to the nationwide teacher shortage and devaluing of the profession, cutting off an important pipeline for well-prepared teachers in Chicago is unwise,” it reads.
Flush with COVID-19 federal relief money, CPS budgeted for more teachers, assistants, social workers, counselors and nurses in schools this year. But a recent WBEZ analysis shows the district continues to struggle to fill all its openings.
The teacher vacancy rate is 4%, up one point over last year. There were nearly 800 special education and regular teacher vacancies as of late September.
Supporters of the program also are raising questions about what the potential loss of the program says about UChicago’s stated commitment to supporting K-12 education in Chicago through a variety of programs it runs. “Disinvesting from such a fundamental piece of the education system that is teacher preparation would be a huge loss to the overall work that the University is doing to transform education,” supporters and grads wrote in their letter.
“If the University of Chicago does away with UTEP, the questions remain to haunt us: What programs are you keeping? What do you as an institution value, and why are teaching and learning not included in those values?” added one graduate, Rebecca Zisook, in a testimonial in the letter.
In a statement, UChicago said it’s “pausing admissions with the end of the 2022-23 academic year” in order to assess how it can support teachers and school leaders in urban schools. All currently enrolled students will be able to complete the program, which includes post-graduation coaching and mentorship.
The university also noted its other educational initiatives, including the Consortium on School Research and the Network for College Success, which supports staff in CPS neighborhood high schools.
Building a new teaching model
The two-year urban teacher program was developed by Hoffman, Kavita Kapadia Matsko and Anthony Bryk, a past director of UChicago’s Urban Education Institute. It launched in 2003 as one of the first teacher residency programs in the country. Nearly 400 educators have graduated since then.
Hoffman said UTEP was specifically designed to prepare teachers to work in Chicago public schools, and that its unique focus on teacher identity ultimately helps children thrive in the classroom.
“Most teacher education programs have a disproportionate number of white candidates — white women in particular who are preparing to work with children of color,” he said. “It was very important for us to build in some components of their reflection on teacher identity.”
The program has earned a reputation among hiring managers for producing diverse, culturally competent teachers, according to Richard Nettles, a field experience and curriculum manager at Chicago Public Schools.
A Chicago native, Nettles graduated from UTEP in 2014 and taught history at a charter school in the Englewood neighborhood for about four years. He said the city has a “vested interest” in recruiting diverse teacher candidates with experiences that mirror the students they serve. Though 87% of CPS students are either Black or Hispanic, just 44% of its teachers are of the same racial and ethnic background. Nearly 48% of teachers are white.
In the first year, UTEP students learn about the history of Chicago and explore how growing up in an urban community can impact a child’s cognitive and psychosocial development. In the second year, they complete a teaching residency at two different schools. Graduates who go on to work for CPS receive additional training, mentoring and coaching support for the first three years of their career.
“It’s pretty much a stamp of approval to have a UTEP-er come through and interview for a position at your school. It’s not a guarantee — obviously they do the proper screening,” Nettles said. “But the likelihood of this person having that level of care and real ties to the community … it’s not something that can be found [elsewhere].”
UTEP alum Sonia Wang taught English at South Side Chicago public schools for about five years and later worked as the principal of UChicago Charter School’s Woodlawn campus. Now, she helps lead two nonprofits, including a professional development organization she co-founded with fellow program alum Jeannie Kim.
“At that time, [it was] the only program I found that was very much concerned about your identity, and what it means to serve the school community,” Wang said. “It’s impacted and really shaped me personally, too, because the values and beliefs that you learn — that doesn’t just remain compartmentalized in your professional space.”
UChicago did not confirm how many students remain enrolled in the program, or say when it might restart its admissions process. Still, remaining staff members are “hanging on to hope,” said Kay Fujiyoshi, an instructor and advisor for the elementary team at UTEP.
“We’ve been in a gray area with our program for a few years now, and it has been a little disheartening to think about the direction that our program may be going in,” she said.
The group is working on plans for a new, sustainable version of UTEP that retains its core elements and its “uniqueness.” Fujiyoshi said they’re cognizant of the fact that it’s expensive to operate a hands-on residency program, and are exploring alternative funding opportunities.
“This is what we do as teachers … we move with what we have, we adjust to situations and our circumstances. And we forge ahead,” she said.