From Wisconsin to Wyoming and Back Again: The Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree and Teacher Licensure

Volume 27, No. 3 - Spring 2016
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It is approximately 1,200 miles from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to Ethete, Wyoming, and there is no easy route between the two communities.

Traveling by air requires two to three connections, and may involve two to three hours of additional driving on either side. Traveling by car is no easier, as it is a 20-hour road trip across Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. It turns out the pathway to teacher licensure between the two states is just as complicated.

A group of teacher education students from Wind River Tribal College (WRTC) in Ethete embarked on this licensure journey, and encountered many adventures along the way. Those adventures, and the lessons learned, provide insight into the design of collaborative programs supporting teacher licensure for Native populations.

THE BACKDROP

The Northern Arapaho Teacher Education Program (NATE) is a collaborative program between WRTC and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UWO) that is designed to provide a bachelor’s degree and teacher licensure to Native students. WRTC, located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, enrolls mostly Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone students. The tribal college was chartered by the Northern Arapaho Business Council in 1997. UWO is located in Oshkosh, and is a comprehensive university in the University of Wisconsin system. The institution is home to one of the first teacher preparation programs in the state, graduating its first class in 1871.

Many students were employed full-time during the school year, so they made great sacrifices of time with their families in order to manage both work and school life.

In 2010 and 2012, the Office of Indian Education in Washington, DC, awarded WRTC two professional development grants. The 2010 grant funded the Northern Arapaho Teacher Education Project, which sought to graduate 15 students in early childhood education/elementary education. The award per year was $302,976 for three years and $52,175 for the first year. In December 2013, 11 students graduated from the project. Of this first group, only two students moved on to test for licensure, which was optional for that cohort.

The 2012 grant, entitled Hiixoohoo3ihnee (Teach and Learn), was written for 15 students to complete a degree and earn licensure in elementary education. The award for this grant per year averaged $287,770. In 2015, ten students completed student teaching. In this second cohort, only two students have chosen not to proceed with licensure, for health- and age-related reasons.

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS: ETHETE IS WHERE?

Our adventure began almost 10 years ago, when representatives from WRTC made their way to Oshkosh to work out an articulation agreement for an associate’s degree program with UWO’s College of Letters and Science. WRTC was considering applying for the teacher education grant and hoped to partner with the University of Wyoming. However, UWO’s College of Education and Human Services had just completed a similar grant with College of Menominee Nation and so WRTC set up a meeting with UWO to learn more about this collaborative venture. I was present at this meeting, along with Suzanne Doemel, who supported the College of Menominee Nation project. I had just developed a strong collaborative program and articulation agreements with the Wisconsin Technical College system in the area of early childhood education. Five years later, Suzanne and I received a call from the current dean of the College of Education and Human Services, Fred Yeo. WRTC had finally received approval for the grant and was ready to begin a program.

Unfortunately, WRTC had not been able to arrange a partnership with the University of Wyoming and time was running out. The grant stated that WRTC would initiate the program in June. We quickly began planning how to recruit students, arrange for admission, and deal with course transfer issues. We also had to figure out exactly where Ethete was and how to get there. Courses began at WRTC in the summer of 2010, with 15 students in the first cohort.

PACKING ENOUGH SOCKS

Students in the cohort programs are non-traditional learners. They had all earned at least an associate’s degree from a variety of colleges, including Central Wyoming College and Haskell Indian Nations

University. Several students had taken courses towards a bachelor’s degree from a variety of universities, including the University of Wyoming and the University of Phoenix. A few students had completed bachelor’s degrees, but in areas other than education.

During the first summer, and for each summer after that, students were enrolled in a full load of courses, often completing a three-credit course over a period of 7 to 10 days, having a few days off and then starting another course. During the school year, courses with local instructors met in the evenings, while courses with instructors flying in from Oshkosh would meet for a full weekend (Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday) once per month. We considered the possibility of moving courses to an online format; however, we soon discovered a large number of our students did not have Internet access at home.

Many students were employed full-time during the school year, so they made great sacrifices of time with their families in order to manage both work and school life. It was not unusual to come into the classroom and find someone’s child or grandchild playing quietly in the corner while Mom, Dad, or Grandma was participating in class. Local instructors were used whenever possible, but over the course of the program, approximately 20 different instructors from Oshkosh flew out to Wyoming to teach courses. Wisconsin instructors learned to pack carefully, and to always plan for extra days as sometimes flights were cancelled. Suzanne and Dr. Joshua Garrison once had to spend an extra three days in Wyoming due to a springtime blizzard.

WHAT’S FOR LUNCH AND WHO’S COOKING?

It was important for UWO faculty to develop a sense of cohesion and community with the WRTC students in the cohort. The full-day schedules always included a working lunch break. Suzanne and I come from a long line of family cooks, so when either of us were at the college, we always spent time in the kitchen. Baked-potato bars, poke cakes, and Suzanne’s famous toffee bars quickly became regular lunchtime menu requests. In the summers, meals were supplemented with fresh vegetables from the tribal college garden.

Students would come to the kitchen, fill a plate and then find a place to eat, either in the classroom or library. Meals soon expanded to feed everyone working at the college, the other tribal offices located in the building, and any folks who just happened to wander by at lunchtime. Our conversations over food became a time to talk about the content of the course as well as to share stories and laughs, as cohort members and instructors continued to learn about one another as teachers and students on a journey together.

WE HAVE TO TAKE A TEST?

The first round of funding was aimed at providing a bachelor’s degree for Head Start teachers, and students in the cohort had the option of earning a teaching license. Licensure quickly became the biggest hurdle that students in the program faced.

State departments of education are responsible for establishing requirements for teacher licensure and for approving teacher education programs in their respective states. In Wisconsin, UWO is an approved teacher preparation program. But since WRTC is in Wyoming, it was very important to determine how the graduates of the program would be able to earn a license in that state. As it turns out, the Wyoming Department of Education has many pathways to licensure. Students coming from an out-of-state teacher preparation program need to be eligible for licensure in the state from which they graduated. When eligibility for licensure is achieved, the candidate needs only to apply for the Wyoming license, without any additional tests.

The hurdles in this case have not come from the Wyoming side of the licensure process, but from Wisconsin. The state’s Department of Public Instruction requirements have gone through multiple changes in the last five years, with each change increasing the cost and number of high-stakes assessments that teacher candidates face. When the cohort program began, Wisconsin required passing scores on the Praxis Pre-Professional Skills Test (PPST) and the designated Praxis content exam for elementary education, as well as a successful student teaching experience, to complete licensure.

The students in the first cohort were initially excited about the possibility of earning a teaching license in addition to the bachelor’s degree. While the bachelor’s degree would give them the credentials necessary to move to a teaching position in Head Start, a teaching license would allow them to transition into a teaching position in a public school setting. All students in the first cohort took the PPST once, and were dismayed when they received the results. We had provided many study sessions to help the students become familiar with the tests and students had shown an understanding of the content, but the testing anxiety and pressure of the assessment became a hurdle that most of the students in the first class decided they did not want to try to overcome. Only two of the students from that first cohort moved ahead with the journey toward licensure.

The two students studied and studied, and worked closely with their cooperating teachers to prepare for the test. Eventually they passed the PPST and the Praxis content test, leaving Wisconsin’s new high-stakes assessment exam, the Foundations of Reading Test (FORT), as their only remaining hurdle. The FORT assesses a teacher’s proficiency and understanding in the area of reading and writing development. Initial licensure candidates in Wisconsin are required to take and pass this test. Both students passed it and became eligible for a Wisconsin teaching license, enabling them to apply for a Wyoming license. One of the students is now teaching in Head Start and the other is at Arapaho Elementary School.

The focus of the second grant was to prepare students to teach in an elementary education setting and receive state licensure. In addition to passing the PPST (which is now called the CORE), the Praxis content test, and the FORT, students in the second cohort had yet one more high-stakes assessment to complete during their student teaching semester: the education Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA). This portfolio requirement focuses on the student teacher’s ability to plan, implement, and assess his or her own students according to a very specific content focus, with a connection to research and theory. Beginning in 2015, the edTPA became required for Wisconsin licensure.

The College of Education and Human Services at UWO is allowed a 10% exemption each semester for the CORE. In the spring 2015 student teaching group, four out of the five students received this exemption. In the fall 2015 student teaching group, all of the students received the exemption. The Praxis content exam does not have an exemption associated with it, so it is a necessary requirement to pass. In the spring 2015 student teaching group, all of the student teachers passed the test. They next turned their attention to the FORT.

By early March, none of the students had yet passed the FORT, and so we decided to have them complete an edTPAin the event that they would not pass the test before completing their student teaching requirement. At the time of this writing, only one of the five students has successfully passed the FORT and received licensure. The remaining four have completed student teaching, and are substitute teaching while continuing to study for the FORT. Their completed edTPAs have not been submitted for official scoring at this time, but they remain on hold should it become necessary to submit them.

LESSONS LEARNED

The Northern Arapaho Teacher Education Program has been a lifechanging opportunity for the participants, UWO faculty, and especially for the project coordinators. The students have learned important life lessons while balancing work, life, family, and school issues. They have gained the knowledge and skills necessary to become effective educators, and have come to value and appreciate their own strengths. The UWO faculty who traveled to WRTC as course instructors have consistently noted the warm and welcoming attitudes of the students and value their intensity and focus as learners. Suzanne and I have appreciated the opportunity to work with learners who are committed to making positive changes in the lives of the children and families in their communities.

A journey should always result in a scrapbook, with pictures and words to document the experience. The scrapbook can also be used as a guide for future journeys and plans. The scrapbook from this journey is almost full. Now, as we ponder what lessons to share with future travelers, we relay the words of the Brazilian soccer great, Pelé: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing.”

Susan Finkel-Hoffman, Ed.D. is the interim director of outreach for the Department of Special and Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and a coordinator for the Northern Arapaho Teacher Education Program.


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