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Education Comes Full-Circle: The Close-Knit Relationship Between Salem State and a Local Elementary School

A circle of fourth-grade students sit on the classroom floor at Horace Mann Laboratory School in Salem, entirely immersed in a lesson about mathematical place values. Their teacher, Alexa Dacey ’18, ’19G, sits at the circle’s center. Her instruction is focused, engaging and confident, which is especially impressive considering that Alexa is in the beginning of her very first year of teaching.

Last year, Alexa graduated from Salem State’s 4+1 combined education degree program, which allows students to earn a master’s degree in education and full state licensure in five years. The last year includes a paid, full-time practicum placement in a school. Alexa’s placement was in Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Revere, Mass., where she gained valuable hands-on experience and learned how to run a classroom. After graduation, she was hired at Horace Mann.

A Strong Salem State Presence at Horace Mann

Horace Mann principal Ruben Carmona ‘01G, ‘04G believes in the training the 4+1 program provides for educators, and hired Alexa and another SSU 4+1 graduate, Zayra Martinez ’18, ’19G, directly following graduation to begin their teaching careers at Horace Mann.

“This is our second year working with SSU’s fellowship program [which was created in 2018], and I can’t think of any other way to train teachers that is as grounded,” Ruben said. “Many schools in our system would like to have fellows. I do have to account for it in our budget, but it’s worth it. I wouldn’t trade it.”

Last school year, Horace Mann hosted four fellowship students from Salem State; this year the partnership has doubled to eight fellows.

Ruben also has a long history with Salem State, including his own two graduate degrees in business administration and educational leadership. The university is where he built the foundation for his work as a school administrator.

“During my educational leadership graduate program at Salem State, I was a member of a cohort that included embedded experiences similar to the 4+1 program,” he recalled. “My SSU education gave me the tools and mindset to develop my role as an administrator. That cohort experience was the point at which I knew that administration was absolutely what I wanted to do with my career.”

Earlier in his career, Ruben taught at two other Salem elementary schools and served as the principal for a school in Lowell, Mass.

“I returned to Salem and came to Horace Mann largely for the partnership with Salem State,” he explained. “It was coming back to a place that I knew, coming home. Horace Mann and Salem State work together to offer a place where learning is a unifying force.”

The Challenges of Teaching in the 21st Century

Much has changed about teaching in recent years, and Ruben explained that he feels people often underestimate the complexity of the teaching job today.

“Accountability measures for schools and districts are much more stringent now,” he said. “Teachers need to be thinking in terms of outcomes while also grappling with the reality of what happens in the classroom. There’s always been a gap there. Growth targets in urban schools like ours are a tall order. Generally, there are the same expectations for all students, with accountability measures that don’t account for some of the deficits kids face in terms of trauma, learning disabilities or for second-language learners. You can’t bridge those gaps overnight, and each student grows on their own unique timeline based on their social and emotional readiness.”

Salem State’s fellowship program is the best way the bridge these gaps between the accountability measures and the level of rigor needed to meet the required standards, Ruben added.

“Fellows aren’t just reading about all this – they experience it in real-time. That makes a big difference,” he said. “Fellows are embedded in the classroom and we treat them as real teachers. They are teachers. They start and end on the same days as the other teachers. It really is a teaching position; it’s a lot of work. They are running the classrooms in some cases, which is different from practicum students. They also are taking their own coursework at the same time.”

A “Behind-the-Scenes” Teaching Experience

Alexa’s experience in the 4+1 program helped her feel confident and prepared in her first year of teaching.

“As a fellow, being completely immersed in the daily responsibilities of a classroom teacher with the safety net of support from my host teachers at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, Stephanie Magno and Lindsey Kordis, allowed me to develop my own teaching style and grow as an educator,” Alexa explained. “The best part about the fellowship was the gradual release of responsibility.”

Being in the classroom full time allowed her to see all the “behind the scenes” work that teachers do daily: data-driven lessons, attending school and district professional development, learning about standards-based grading, and watching how faculty and staff communicate and work together for the success of all students.

“The best kind of preparation one can get truly is gained from experience,” she said. “That is what the Salem State fellowship program provided me. The more time I spent in the classroom, the more experience I gained.”

Now Alexa is not only teaching in her own classroom but also overseeing two current fellows who provide support in her classroom. Two of the fellows teaching at Horace Mann this year – Emily Hall ’20 and Kaylee Steele ’20 - have been placed in Alexa’s class, bringing the educational experience full-circle for her and the school.

“It’s been quite the transition, going from being the fellow to supervising fellows,” she said. “Having Emily and Kaylee in my classroom is a huge help, though, and I love being able to support them and give back. It’s nice that I can relate to what they are going through from firsthand experience; there’s common ground there. It’s only the beginning of the school year now, but I’ve already seen them taking over small group instruction, working one-on-one with struggling students, running morning meetings, and collaborating on planning. I’m excited to watch them continue to progress and be a part of their professional growth.”

Emily came to Salem State from the suburbs of Seattle and is enjoying learning to teach in the more urban setting at Horace Mann. “As I’m learning every day, we’re helping [our students] grow,” she said.  

Kaylee mentioned that she appreciates that Alexa is also a new teacher because she feels like they’re figuring things out together in some ways. “She lets me be involved with the planning and teaching process,” Kaylee explained. “I feel as though I am an important part of the classroom and that I’m making an impact.”

Ruben echoed Kaylee’s thoughts by emphasizing one of his beliefs about education: “We learn from everyone,” he said. “Learning comes from any place in the building.”

“I’m very impressed with the fellows we’ve had,” Ruben added. “I hope to hire one or two of our fellows as teachers for next year. But we have seven fellows now, and we just can’t hire them all. I would love to offer a job to everyone, but that’s not the reality of the marketplace. We’ll choose based on how proactive and determined they are in their work, their commitment, their knowledge in terms of practices, and their willingness to do what it takes to get the kids to learn. It’s not an easy task.”

In addition to Emily and Kaylee, the other Salem State fellows at Horace Mann during the 2019-2020 school year are Erica Cabral ’19, ’20G; Paige Rotondo ’19, ’20G; Jillian Stinnett ’19, ’20G; Colleen Hurley ’19, ’20G; and Samantha Lear ’19, ’20G.

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