UDM's Experience Plus Program:

Offering Catholic school teachers the tools to excel

Highligher & Laureate, Summer 2002

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Thirty Detroit area Catholic school teachers will soon earn teaching certification through the University of Detroit Mercy's Experience Plus Program, now in its second year. This unique and innovative program enables teacher candidates to complete certification coursework in 12 months, in addition to a required semester of student teaching. Experience Plus actively involves mentor teachers in Catholic schools as co-instructors, and facilitates student teaching in the same school that sponsors each candidate. Each candidate currently holds a special teaching permit for the State of Michigan as a substitute teacher and must have a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree.

The integrated program includes the same curriculum and objectives as UDM's on-campus certification program, but is accomplished in less time. The intensive, hands-on approach is rigorous and requires a significant commitment of time and energy from each teacher. Coursework occupies afternoons, evenings and weekends year-round during an 18-month period, culminating with a student teaching requirement that the teachers complete in their current Catholic school classrooms. Their dedication demonstrates the commitment to excellence so important to the success of Catholic and parochial schools.

"This program requires quite a time commitment from the teachers," says Elizabeth Carlson, UDM associate professor of Education, and creator of the Experience Plus concept. "But our enrollment indicates that people are willing to make sacrifices to become better teachers," she says. While UDM projected the first year enrollment at 20, nearly 60 teachers signed up to participate, and 42 Catholic schools in the archdiocese of Detroit have joined as sponsors.

One of the program's greatest assets is its cohort curriculum, designed so that each group progresses through courses at the same time. This consistency provides a support system, in which candidate teachers get to know and help one another. Class members create individual portfolios of specific teaching strategies, such as methods that work for different types of learners and learning styles.

Another key benefit is the program's field-based approach, which gives teachers the opportunity to put theory into practice right away. "Teachers learn by doing, taking a research-based concept and applying it," says Judy Shelton, co-director of the program.

Zanda Mitchell, who teaches first grade at Holy Name in Birmingham and was certified through Experience Plus in May, agrees that being able to use what she learned right away is advantageous. She stresses the importance of the field experience she has gained, and states that the aspect she most enjoyed was visiting the different types of schools in the Detroit area--public, private and charter--and adopting their best practices. "We were exposed to a lot of different teaching methods, which were very helpful. I believe the more open you are to trying different things, the better chance you have of reaching every child."

Mitchell's situation emphasizes the suitability of the program for those returning to the workforce after some time away. She was a stay-at-home mom who suddenly found herself needing to support two children, one in college, the other in UDM's School of Law. She had a degree in social work and had always wanted to teach kindergarten or first grade, but her options were limited. The Experience Plus program made it possible for her to get her certification while supporting her family.

"The program is great for people who have other responsibilities and need to work to support their families while being certified," she said. "I could not have become a teacher otherwise." She added that some of her fellow Experience Plus teachers are retirees from other professions who always wanted to teach and now apply their valuable life skills to their new vocation.

Another part of the equation is the Catholic schools that sponsor the teachers. They show their commitment to excellence as well: Catholic school principals must agree to sponsor each teacher (and in some cases serve as mentors), and to open classrooms to observers (who are the professors of the classes). Principals consider the program a tremendous opportunity for their teachers and students, according to UDM Associate Professor of Education Joslen Letscher.

"Principals see the program as a way to assure that students in their schools have the benefit of a certified teacher in their classrooms," says Letscher.

Pat Gajewski, co-director, agrees, saying, "We consult with our Principals Advisory Board and value their impact regarding the program. The principals have also provided classroom space for our off-campus coursework."

Teachers interested in applying to the Experience Plus program must meet UDM's normal admissions requirements and be currently teaching in the Catholic school which sponsors them. Those enrolled in the program can take advantage of UDM's benefits for teachers, which include a 50 percent tuition remission and an interest-free monthly payment plan.

For more information on the Experience Plus Program, or to obtain an application form, please call Pat Gajewski at 313-578-0479 or email her at gajewspa@udmercy.edu.