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Life Lessons: The 20 Percent

Rhema Thompson

Teaching is a journey, but it hasn't been a pleasant one for everyone.

Recently, the inaugural class of the Jacksonville Teacher Residency (JTR) program had its final meeting of 2014. The end-of-semester meeting had fewer teachers than the beginning of the school year. In the final installment of "Life Lessons" for the year, WJCT takes a look at the stories behind the two residents whose forays into teaching were cut short.

A strong start

The day William Bowman got the offer to join the Jacksonville Teacher Residency program, he was ecstatic.

“I remember signing it, thinking ‘Oh this is great. They’re accepting me into this program.' I was enthusiastic to be a part of it,” he said.

Bowman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Central Florida in 2010. He discovered a love for teaching about two years later as a private math and physics tutor.

“I had students tell me ‘I wish you were my teacher’...There was one particular parent who really encouraged me to get into teaching,” he said.

That parent, Janet Holt, would eventually write a letter of recommendation for Bowman when he applied to the Jacksonville Teacher Residency Program. The program — a partnership between Duval Schools and the University of North Florida — takes science, technology, engineering and technology professionals and molds them into teachers over the course of four years. The first year is spent shadowing a mentor veteran teacher.

Holt’s recommendation letter boasts of Bowman’s professionalism and ability to meet goals by setting high expectations, innovation and humor. As a result, Holt states her daughter went from a failing grade in AP Statistics to a B.

“All of this improvement is due to William’s dedication and perseverance,” the letter states.

Bowman began JTR in June with 10 other residents but six months later, he is far from enthusiastic.

“It’s completely put a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to teaching,” he said. “I don’t think I will become a teacher now.”

Bowman was terminated from the program in November. He’s one of two participants to leave the program so far. Currently, nine residents remain in the inaugural class.

‘In a bad light’

For Bowman, the trouble started back in October with a seemingly innocuous question during a meeting on math curriculum at his school site Andrew Jackson High.

“All I said was ‘Can we do the online component in the media center?’ he said.

It wasn't so much the question itself, but the timing of it that was the issue, he said. The situation escalated briefly but everything seemed fine after talks with the principal and a couple teachers, he said.

“It was completely handled in-house at Jackson [High] and there were no more issues because everyone understood it was a misunderstanding. It was no big deal but they just wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen again,” he said.

Jackson High Principal Evan Daniels did not return calls and messages left by WJCT. However, Bowman says word of that misunderstanding eventually reached the district level. After that, he said he was unfairly targeted.

“It was from then on that I was put in a bad light,” he said.

Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti disputed that charge.

“There were a number of incidents at the school level that demonstrated that was not the right fit for the program,” he said.

Bowman’s termination letter states he behaved unprofessionally on several different occasions, but doesn’t go into any further details. The letter also alleges Bowman committed academic misconduct in his UNF coursework. But e-mails from the university administrators indicate the charges against him didn’t actually meet UNF’s misconduct definition.

“The academic misconduct charge brought against you does not align with the violations set within the academic misconduct policy,” one email dated Dec. 3 states.

Bowman did, however, receive an F in one of his three required courses this semester, which according the JTR handbook is grounds for termination.

Bowman argues the grade wasn’t justified. According to University policy, he has a 90-day window from the time he received the grade to appeal it.

Breaking point

Both Bowman and the district say before he was fired, he was given the option to resign or continue the program with stipulations. Bowman said he wanted to stay.

“Two days later when they handed me the letter of continuance. It was not what was advertised. It did not specify any behaviors or expectations,” he said.

He told them he did not feel comfortable signing it without having a lawyer review it first. Email records show he was placed on suspension while he sought legal counsel. Five days later he received a termination notice.

Superintendent Vitti said the leadership of the program had reached a breaking point.

“Throughout this entire process there was an opportunity for [Bowman] to remediate, to reflect and either change behavior or change the approach," he said. "But that didn’t happen."

Another resident leaves

Fellow resident and Edward Waters College mathematics major Delbert Johnson left around the same time, though under different circumstances. In Johnson's case, it stemmed back to a video.

“I do entertainment. I do comedy skits and my brother, he does music videos, so over the summer I was in a music video with a so-called gang,” he said.

Johnson said he doesn’t have ties to any actual gangs. However, other people featured in video did. He said he didn't learn that until later.

Although the video was recorded the summer before Johnson began the program, his school’s principal saw it when it went viral. Johnson was asked to resign.

“I think it was fair for the safety of the students, but I feel I could have stayed in school,” he said. “It hurts because I missed out on getting my master’s and finding out what teaching really gives.”

However, Johnson said he’s still grateful for the experience.

“I learned so much. I didn’t know teachers went through that much. I left just at the right time to get all the info I needed,” he said.

Attrition rates

University of Florida education expert Suzanne Colvin says, in general, non-traditional teacher training programs can shed as many as 40 percent of participants.

“The alternative programs vary,” she said. “It’s a much shorter period of time to learn about children, student development, children development, human development, how students learn, how the brain works, effective teaching strategies all specific to each content area.”

A survey by Chicago-based Urban Teacher Residency United — the training model JTR uses — found that about 20 percent of participants affiliated with their program don’t make it to the end. In its first semester, JTR has lost 18 percent of its original class.

But for Johnson, the departure was a setback, not the end. The former Ribault High School student said teaching has been a longtime dream of his, and it’s not going away.

“I’m going to take my general knowledge test,” he said. “I’m going to end up teaching I’d say a year or two from now.”

For fellow former resident Bowman, however, the emotions over the experience are still raw.

“I put my heart and soul into that school. I put in so much energy into that school, and it kills me that I can’t be with my students,” he said.

However, he’s not done working with kids. He’ll continue doing so as a private tutor.

About the Program

The Jacksonville Teacher Residency Program was developed by Duval County Public Schools in partnership with the University of North Florida and the Jacksonville Public Education Fund as one of several privately-funded Quality Education for All initiatives aimed at improving the district's education talent pool. The medical-residency style program is modeled after the Urban Teacher Residency United based out of Chicago, and is the first to launch in Florida. The program recruits high achieving undergraduate math and science majors and places them in high-need schools for a total of four years — one year as a resident with an assigned mentor and three years as a teacher in one of 36 targeted, underperforming schools.

Cost: $1.6 million approved and funded through QEA; $5.5 million in total proposed.

This story is part of American Graduate - a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities implement and identify solutions to address the high school dropout crisis.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter@RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.