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In the city

Student teachers prepare for urban classrooms through an innovative program at UCO.

Rachael Cervenka April 24th, 2013

Barbara Gonzales was eager to teach in urban schools, but the Moore native realized she was only vaguely aware of the diverse challenges she’d face in that environment. That’s why the elementary education major at the University of Central Oklahoma decided to forgo the traditional student-teaching route and opt instead for UCO’s Urban Teacher Preparation Academy, or UTPA.

Barbara Gonzales
Credit: Shannon Cornman

Since 2010, the academy has given upper-level education majors who are passionate about teaching in urban classrooms the opportunity to do so through a partnership with Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Gonzales and fellow future teachers entered the program in January. After completing volunteer hours and training, they will be placed in classrooms in August for a year-long student-teaching experience.

“I want to empower students to go and do things despite their [at-risk] situation,” said the 26-year-old Gonzales.

The UTPA seeks to place teacher candidates in education settings that comprise a 25 percent or greater minority population, a free or reduced lunch of 40 percent or greater and at least a 10-percent English-language learners population.

For Gonzales, the biggest eyeopener in the program has been learning about the presence of gangs in the inner city. Gang-related homicides in Oklahoma City last year doubled to 28 from 14 the year before, according to OKC police.

“I didn’t realize the extent of how bad gangs were,” she said.

Recently, UTPA participants visited the Family Awareness and Community Teamwork (F.A.C.T.) recreation center, where they heard from police officers specializing in gang prevention.

Sgt. Freddy Hernandez, police gang-intervention officer, said a majority of the students begin the F.A.C.T.

program with no self-esteem or goals in life.

“Most kids look up to their teachers,” he said. “The UTPA program can show children at risk for gang participation that someone in the community cares enough to come and work with them.”

This year, the UTPA has expanded to include prospective teachers studying at the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education.

Brooke Lee is one of four OU students who chose to be part of the new program. The 22-year-old said only a few of her classmates are interested in teaching in urban classrooms.

“I think that I can be a good teacher for those students who really need good teachers,” said Lee, who is from Noble. “By doing this program, I will be better equipped to provide them with the opportunities they need to succeed.”

Since UTPA’s inception, 34 students have participated. Thirteen are currently student teaching, and 17 out of 21 graduates are now employed full-time in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

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