The SUPER program works with four primary guiding principles:
- Working collaboratively to support elementary and middle school student achievement;
- Supporting professional development by working with teachers in the schools;
- Promoting the training and development of University students;
- Working to promote inquiry and research activities.
Upon reaching out to the three Sparks schools Dr. Margaret Ferrara, College of Education associate professor and SUPER program co-coordinator, said the program would have to operate as a partnership in order to be effective for College of Education practicum students seeking to be teachers and the students learning from them. Ferrara said in a media release Thursday that "imposing the program" was not an option for the College of Education and the effort "needed to be collaborative."
Ferrara had similar feelings Friday during a phone interview when she took a break from final exam preparation and grading to speak about SUPER.
"It has been quite exciting and extremely rewarding," she said. "We are able to learn from each other and that is so important right now with the new initiatives incorporated in Common Core (Curriculum Standards). Being able to talk together and ensure our students who are stepping into those schools are using the same language and acronyms as the teachers they are learning from regularly."
The SUPER program began from a donation to the College of Education and has now spent two years working with the three Sparks schools. Russell Hunter, Sparks Middle School teacher and SUPER facilitator for the school said young students and graduate-level professionals have reaped rewards in a short amount of time.
“One of the key advantages of being part of the SUPER alliance is the sharing of best practices either through personal development opportunities or through university students spending time in classrooms,” Hunter said in a release. “Having practicum students and interns from the university allows learning to take place for the lead teachers as well as the university students. This sharing of information is a fantastic opportunity to practice new learning strategies and actually field test them in practical situations. In turn, the use of these strategies allows for current teachers to learn or be reminded of new strategies to implement in their class.
“Used correctly, practicum students are a key instruction tool for teachers in the classroom. This is one reason why the SUPER group at Sparks Middle School is looking at the co-teaching model as a professional development opportunity this year. Utilizing practicum students as co-teachers in the classroom allows for smaller group activities, including intervention groups, learning centers and individual instruction for students needing additional support.”
Ferrara said 10 teachers at the three schools stepped forward initially to host 'pre-service learning teachers' in their classrooms. This fall there were 12 Washoe County School District teachers using the program and another 15 are expected for spring teachings, which Ferrara said speaks to the collaborative effort among the entities involved.
"I think they open their doors because they know how important it is," Ferrara said Friday. "A critical way to learn is by being in action and being there to share the experience and strategies in the classroom. I think they have learned a lot of realities about the teaching field through this partnership."
All three schools allow pre-service undergraduate and graduate students in their classes, with two of the schools hosting supervised groups of more than 20 university students in 2013. At Maxwell Elementary and Sparks Middle, the university students and a faculty member spend an entire day per week at the school, working closely with teachers, engaging in independent but supervised teaching, and receiving feedback on their delivery and management of instruction.
At Kate Smith Elementary, the focus of the SUPER program is on early childhood education, which covers pre-K through third grade, and is part of a national initiative to transform how children ages 3 to 8 learn in schools. According to the Foundation for Child Development, research shows that the cornerstone of a successful education is the learning that takes place from Pre-K through third grade.
There is however, little instructional coordination from year to year, even within the same school, much less across a school district or a state. The SUPER program at Kate Smith is researching ways to change that. Funding for this initiative comes primarily from a local early childhood advisory council grant, Title I and collaboration with the Washoe County School District’s Striving Readers grant.
“The major benefit resulting from SUPER is increased communication among the teachers participating in the group,” Hunter said. “The SUPER group was able to look at the different strategies and figure out ways to adapt them to different areas of the curriculum. Also, teachers were able to provide feedback and ideas to others about improving strategies currently being utilized in their classroom.”
Ferrara said Friday she was very impressed with the progress the program has made, which she said is a credit to Sparks' "jewel" of "true neighborhood schools."
"The most rewarding thing is watching students learn and to watch teachers who have a willing audience to showcase their talents," Ferrara said. "It is a very proud moment and I am proud that our university has the resources to send these students to these wonderful schools and have them come back with real life lessons and observations."