When her principal approached her one day in 2017, Lolita Fields was working in the after-school program at Appletree Parklands (1801 Mississippi Ave. SE), one of 12 campuses operated by the District Public Charter school serving Prek-3 and Pre-k 4 students.
“You’re really good at this,” Fields remembers the principal telling her. “You should consider getting your masters and becoming a lead teacher.”
But Fields wasn’t looking to go back to school. A few years prior, she had completed a Master’s in Criminal Justice before retiring from the Prince George County Police Department. Two years later, she went to work with the kids at Appletree, acting on her passion for improving outcomes for the District’s youngest residents. Why would she stop doing that to go to school again?
Then the principal explained: Fields wouldn’t have to leave the kids at all. She could join Appletree’s Early Learning Teacher Residency program and get her master’s in teaching while she worked in the classroom.
“You couldn’t beat what they were offering,” Fields said. “So I signed up.”
Appletree offers one of several alternative teacher certification programs, or teacher residencies, in the District of Columbia. These programs provide aspiring educators a training alternative to college and university programs, offering schools an additional pipeline to new teachers at the same time as they provide candidates training and support.
Enrollment in these programs is increasing even as more conventional higher-education models are seeing a steep decline.
Residency vs. Traditional Preparation
When the pandemic hit in 2020, it exacerbated already existing national teacher shortages. The pandemic stimulated a departure from teaching: in the first sixth months of 2021, about 250 teachers left DC Public Schools (DCPS), a trend mirrored in DC Charter Schools.
Given this, training new teachers has taken on new importance. But, according to a 2022 study by Center for American Progress, enrollment in comprehensive college and university education programs declined nationwide by 47 percent between the 2010 and 2018 school years. However, enrollment in alternative teaching programs—those not based at institutes of higher education—increased by 76 percent.
A residency provides an opportunity for candidates who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject to make education their career by offering them an opportunity to learn on the job at the same time as they pursue teaching certification, usually through graduate work.
Candidates integrate coursework with mentorships and real-life experience in the classroom alongside a lead teacher. In exchange, residents commit to a role as lead teachers at a school for one to three years.
In DC, residency programs are offered by national nonprofits operating in the District, such as Teach for America or DC Urban Teachers (urbanteachers.org). Still others, like the Charter Capital Teaching Residency (CTR, www.kippdc.org/join-our-team/capital-teaching-residency) were created by KIPP DC but have expanded to serve multiple schools throughout the District.
District program commitments and outlines vary. Participants in Urban Teachers make a four-year overall commitment, with regular coaching and mentorship throughout. Their first year is in the classroom, then they start two years of graduate-school classes funded by a stipend. They receive full pay to lead a classroom through years two and three, focusing on career interests in year four.
Appletree requires a two-year commitment, with one year of an in-school apprenticeship mixed with LEA-based learning and one year of accelerated graduate work with RELAY Graduate School of Education (GSE) during their second year. By the second year, students are fully certified teachers leading their classroom with the support of instructional staff and mentors.
The CTR origin comes out in the middle, with a three-year commitment required. The first year is an in-class fellowship with a mentor teacher. During the second year, when they become fully-paid and fully-supported lead teachers, they can apply for the accelerated RELAY program as well, finishing that degree as they teach their third year.
DCPS has taken advantage of this new approach to teacher training and recruitment. Over 70 resident teachers joined DCPS from 2021-22. DCPS does not direct its own residency programs but partners with organizations such as RELAY GSE, Urban Teachers and residency programs at American University, Howard University and Georgetown University.
”We believe these commitments are beneficial in deepening connections between resident teachers and the school communities they serve,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We hope to continue expanding our residencies in the coming years as we know that robust and diverse teacher pipelines are an essential component of our talent acquisition and retention strategy.”
Residency programs are highly competitive and have a rigorous admission process. Hundreds of people apply for the CTR program annually, outgoing Program Director Tywanna Lesley said. Less than 100 are selected. Last year, Appletree said they admitted a cohort of only 20.
Candidates not only have to have a bachelor’s degree, they also need relatively high GPAs; at least 2.5 for Urban Teachers and an ideal of 3.0 for the Appletree and CTR programs. In addition to the application, there may be interviews, essays and sessions with program representatives. Some require an on-site visit.
Once a resident is accepted, they have to manage the workload. In addition to daily classroom teaching, students participate in classes with their master’s institution, instruction provided by the program team, as well as hours spent with coaches or mentors and on coursework.
“This is a residency program,” said Rose Silva, the Program Manager for Appletree’s program. “You need to work hard to be successful.” But, Silva said, the program recognizes the need to nurture staff as well as students, providing support such as mental health and exercise programs.
Incoming CTR Director Ashley Carter said since residents are going to teach in their schools, in-school programs like CTR have more control over what the experience would look like than an independent program. Their teachers choose to be mentors, rather than are chosen.
“Because we don’t have to partner with multiple different entities, we can be really responsive in the service of what our students need,” Carter said.
Who Is Enrolled
These programs also help individual schools recruit and retain teachers during a time when many are leaving the profession and others are reluctant to enter it.
Schools with higher at-risk student populations are more likely to face these challenges, and residency programs often make their needs a focus. For instance, as part of their application, DC Urban Schools identifies candidates who have a commitment to working in urban settings and in under-served communities.
The residency programs also increase the diversity of the teaching corps by design. With the promise of reduced tuition, stipends and full-time pay while learning, alternative programs are much more accessible to people from lower-income households.
Such programs are also attractive to people making mid- or end-of-career switches. Entering a residency at the end of one’s career, as Fields did, is not unusual for such a program, representatives say.
Alternative programs have also been shown to have greater enrollment among African-Americans and men than conventional routes. According to the Center for American Progress, which aggregated data reported to the US Department of Education, people of color accounted for about 48 percent of enrollment in these alternative programs and about 29 percent in conventional programs.
For CTR and Appletree, which serve schools with majority black populations, it is important to have educators that look like and understand their students. “Representation matters,” Silva said. “There are a lot of studies that show the value of students learning from teachers that are similar to them and have similar experiences.”
Residency programs have extremely high rates of completion and retention. In part, that’s because teachers completing their residency programs at schools like Appletree and CTR are often offered positions at their school site. At Appletree, that’s the explicit goal, said Silva. Teachers appear to respond to the relationships and support they have built in these communities, often staying on for years.
Fields is one of those teachers. She has been a lead teacher at Appletree’s Parkland campus ever since she completed her residency in 2019, only stepping away to help open a new campus in 2020-21.
For the retired officer, teaching was a different way to help youth and work with families. “You see children learning and you get better outcomes,” she said. “If you build great relationships, you build great learners.”
Residency directors say that in a period of a high-need for teachers, residencies can be a way for more people to fill a need.
“A call to action is for people to really look deeply within themselves to find out if teaching and working and doing this important work is for them,” said CTR’s Lesley, “because we need more talented, capable passionate people to do this work.”