CPS teacher residency program growing, helping fill classrooms

A first grade classroom at Nixon Elementary was filled with the voices of students reading Spanish books in unison — and shouts of excitement when they got the words right.

At one table, kids read a picture book about the folklore mouse “Ratón Pérez.” At another, the focus was on a different character, the roach “La Cucaracha Martina.”

Their teacher, Yesenia François, broke through the noise. “Five minutes left. Who needs more time, my loves?” she asked in Spanish.

On the last day of classes for Chicago Public Schools last Thursday, François was finishing up her fifth year as a teacher and her first at Nixon, a neighborhood school in Hermosa on the Northwest Side.

It’s a profession she took on after family challenges derailed her education, with the help of a CPS program aimed at bolstering teacher ranks amid a workforce shortage. François was in a 12-member teacher residency pilot program in 2018 that promised to earn participants a master’s degree and their own classroom. This was an opportunity for parent volunteers, classroom aides and career-changers to pursue a passion.

“Since I was a little girl, honestly, [teaching] was always a passion,” François said.

Five years in, the program is making good progress — including growing by the hundreds. A cohort of 193 teachers was honored at an induction ceremony Monday after finishing their year of residency and earning a teacher license. They’ll have their own classes in the fall. CPS has already recruited 225 prospective teachers for next year’s program.

Ben Felton, CPS human resources chief, said the program “checks all these boxes for us that are so important,” like filling vacancies in areas where it’s especially hard to find teachers: special education, English learner classrooms and high-poverty schools where educators come and go more often.

Yesenia Francois, who completed the Chicago Public Schools Teacher Residency program, guides her students as they complete an activity related to a book during a dual language first grade inclusion class at William P. Nixon Elementary School in Hermosa on Thursday, June 6, 2024.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“It’s a significant investment from the district, but we think it’s the best way to train a teacher,” Felton said.

Participants take college courses while shadowing a CPS teacher full time. They have to pay around $20,000 to $30,000 in tuition at one of five local colleges and universities that have partnered with CPS. They get paid $40,000 plus benefits for the residency year, and several scholarships are available to help with tuition. In their second year, the teacher gets a raise and a classroom of their own. They have to commit to working at CPS for at least two years.

Felton said the program has helped new teachers be better prepared to work in CPS. Young college graduates often find it difficult to stay after their first year or two, especially if they aren’t from Chicago or are working in high-poverty schools with a host of challenges. The year of hands-on training has been beneficial. So has the fact that many participants were previously parent volunteers or paraprofessionals, such as special education classroom assistants or teacher aides, who had experience and connections in the schools and communities.

“We didn’t want to continue to just be subject to being a passive consumer of the talent that local universities were giving us,” Felton said. “Instead, we decided we were going to play an active role in shaping who gets to be the next generation of CPS teachers.”

Early data shows around 88% of participants are sticking with CPS five years in. Officials hope that’ll help with the district’s teacher retention problems, especially if the program keeps growing. CPS hires around 1,500 teachers every year, so next year’s 225-member cohort will account for around 15% of those hires.

François, the Nixon teacher, had gone through a long journey to achieve her teaching dream before the residency program. She was two courses away from her bachelor’s degree when her son was diagnosed with epilepsy, and bad advice from her counselor led her to have to later repeat classes. When her master’s degree was almost done, her son faced another serious health challenge, and she again paused her education.

Kids hold their whiteboards as they answer a question posed by Yesenia Francois, who completed the Chicago Public Schools Teacher Residency program, during a dual language first grade inclusion class at William P. Nixon Elementary School in Hermosa on Thursday, June 6, 2024.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“It felt like every time I was getting close, life threw me a curveball,” François said.

She eventually volunteered at her son’s CPS elementary school and was then hired as a special education classroom assistant. A colleague there forwarded her an email about the new residency program, which François felt was a perfect fit. She said she’s not sure she would have found another way to become a teacher.

François is now slated to mentor a new teaching resident in next school year’s program. She’s also applying to the CPS principal residency program.

Naomi Taylor is on the other end of the timeline: She just finished her residency year at Joplin Elementary in Gresham on the South Side and is in the process of getting hired at another school where she’ll have her own class in August.

Taylor grew up with a love for school and teaching, but she started her career in business and retail management. She decided to leave midcareer to spend more time with her son and caring for his needs. Taylor started volunteering at her son’s school, Metcalf Elementary in West Pullman, and administrators there hired her as a special education classroom assistant when they saw she was great with kids.

“Once I got pulled into the school, I realized, oh, this is it,” she said. “I kind of forgot I wanted this. But now that I’m here, we’re back.”

Taylor spent four years at Metcalf and a year at Joplin before applying for the residency program. She’s receiving her teaching license with a bilingual endorsement and will teach a special education classroom next year.

“Being in the classroom full time and supporting students and still doing coursework and being a mom. … It can feel daunting, it can feel overwhelming at times,” Taylor said. “But remembering why you signed up, what it is you want to do, that has been the grounding principle for me.

“It’s exciting and also nervous,” she said of next school year. “But at the same time, I know that I have had the mentorship, the support, the experiences that will prepare me to take on a classroom.”

Naomi Taylor speaks during a Chicago Public School’s new teacher celebration Monday at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

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