By Liz Bowie

As principal of a small Southeast Baltimore school, Anthony Ruby has guided a variety of first-year teachers, ranging from the stars who seem to have an innate sense of how to handle a class to those who were so ineffective he declined to renew their contracts. When teachers aren't effective, he said, "it is not fair to our kids.

Hundreds of teachers are hired each year to fill vacancies in Baltimore, and the majority will be newcomers to the profession. In urban districts, where many are assigned to teach children with some of the greatest challenges, the national burnout rate is astonishing. Fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession within three years.

For years, former Baltimore school administrator Jennifer Green watched struggling teachers with lots of will but little skill, and came to believe that the high turnover rate and inexperienced teachers were major obstacles to improving schools. Eventually, she came up with a potential solution, and in 2009, she and a colleague quit their jobs and started the Baltimore-based Urban Teacher Center.

Green would reach out to principals hampered each year by the next new crop of young, beginning teachers fumbling their way through their first few years of teaching. For $20,000 from the principals, she would send a recent college graduate who would spend the first year as a resident helping in an experienced teacher's classroom.

In return, the resident would get valuable mentoring while taking graduate classes and have a shot at being hired as a full-time teacher the following year. They would continue to work while earning a master's from Lesley University, a private college in Cambridge, Mass.

"The genesis of what I hope will become a national model was born out of my experiences in Baltimore," Green said.

Ruby at Holabird Academy was one of the principals Green approached. He saw it as a bargain.

"We look for any way we can to get more qualified adults working with students for an extended period of time. The more positive adult interactions kids have, the better they do in school," he said. "I can afford four full-time residents for what is still $10,000 less than a teacher."

He also has used residents from the Urban Teacher Center to staff summer school and as substitutes.

The prospective teachers get the chance to try out the profession and make a few mistakes under a watchful eye before taking on the full responsibility of a classroom, and Ruby gets a pipeline of potential hires in which he has more confidence.

In the past four years, 130 residents from the Urban Teacher Center have signed up for the four-year commitment to city schools, which includes one year of a residency and three years of teaching.

As part of the program, teachers are required to prove their effectiveness in the classroom before moving to the next year.

As American education leaders search for ways to build better teachers, some have argued that the focus should be on more rigorous selection and training of teachers. Instead, many states have emphasized weeding out ineffective teachers through an evaluation system that grades them in part on student test scores.

Supporters of that first approach point to other countries where student achievement has surpassed that of the United States.

The Urban Teacher Center is selective: only 25 percent of applicants are chosen for the four-year program. And a teacher's training includes more clinical practice than many college programs.

The Urban Teacher Center has 123 teachers in 35 schools across Baltimore and 200 teachers in 41 schools in Washington. It hopes to expand into Chicago next year, and four more cities in five years. Other similar residencies are flourishing in cities such as Boston, Minneapolis and Miami.

But a question remains about whether these small programs will spread, largely because they are expensive for the candidates and the school systems.

Most alternative education programs guarantee a paying job immediately after college. For example, the popular Teach for America program provides teachers a summer of training and by fall a job earning $47,500 as a first-year teacher in a Baltimore school.

In the Urban Teacher Center program, participants may need to take out student loans and live frugally during the first year of residency when they are unpaid.

David Wise, in his second year with the program, said other routes into the profession "don't have the one year of mirroring an effective teacher. That helps you a lot."

With the first class of UTC graduates, the attrition rate was about the same as the national average. But the retention rate improved to 82 percent with the second class of teachers, who just completed their third year in the program.

Some education experts say there may be resistance to paying the cost of teacher training upfront, as is required by a residency program. But, some say, the cost of recruiting, selecting and training teachers every year may be just as high. About half of Baltimore teachers have five years or less experience in the classroom.

"There is a front-loading concept to teacher residency programs that is the antithesis of how ed reform and teacher prep has worked in the nation," said Anissa Listak, executive director of Urban Teacher Residency United, which has residency programs serving 29 school districts. She said residencies may save school districts money _ and improve teacher quality.

Although schools of education are in competition with some of the alternative certification programs for students, some of the schools like what they see in the residency model.

"I think it is a wonderful idea," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the former Maryland school superintendent who now works at Towson University's school of education. "To have them come in and get acclimated with a teacher is a wonderful way for teachers in Baltimore to start. Really smart."

(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun