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Unusual master's program a hit with teachers at Waubun-Ogema

Students at Waubun-Ogema-White Earth Community Schools won't have classes on May 15, 2009. Students are getting the day off while a number of the teachers graduate.

That's right, the teachers.

In fact, 22 teachers from the Waubun school district will graduate that May from Minnesota State University Moorhead with master's degrees in curriculum and instruction.

Other teachers in the program include some from Norman County East, one from Circle of Life School, and two from Mahnomen.

"The nice thing about this program is that it's kind of tailored to this area," said Ann Wothe, business education instructor and Waubun Education Association union president.

Some classes have addressed student issues regarding poverty, culture, and social services, as well as other issues affecting the school district.

"We've had classes that have focused on determining what the needs of our students are," Wothe said. That includes panel discussions with students about what they think needs to be changed in the district.

"The project will cumulate with all of us doing action research projects."

"These are basically experiments in our classroom," she said. "We're taking a look at something that's an issue in our classroom, something that we would like to improve on, something we would like to see changed at the school level or classroom level."

Wothe's project is about mentoring high school students in online college classes, "to see if we can entice more children to take more rigorous classes," she said.

"There's a whole gamut of what we're doing as far as master's projects. They're ranging all the way from kindergarten to online college levels. We're covering math and reading and phys ed and just a whole host of every subject, pretty much," Wothe said.

Some of the other project topics include studying the use of word problems in math classes, family literacy, the effect of silent and sustained reading on children, and examining the process of grouping students based on ability.

One master's student is even studying behavior changes based on climate change, such as drops in barometric pressure and phases of the moon.

"It's really a great learning experience," Wothe said. "The people who are in the master's group, a lot of times, we don't get to talk to our fellow colleagues in a way that is meaningful because we don't see them ... You get to talk about things that are happening in your schools ... it's been a really great way to kind of bond and build that collegiality with the staff."

That communication has increased collaborative efforts between teachers. Wothe said teachers have been able to pluck ideas from each other's projects and research to apply to their own classrooms.

The classes have also opened up a different approach to students. Wothe said teachers are working to identify the issues the students face and trying to determine if there is a way to help them, both at school in an instructional sense, and issues kids face at home or in the community.

"It's a great program, I'm glad I'm in it," she said.

The program instructors come to the school to teach the teachers. Classes are every Wednesday night, from 4 p.m. to a little after 8 p.m.

Wothe said the teachers had to go through the admissions process to participate in the program. Tuition for the classes is not subsidized, and the cost to the school district is in providing the space and equipment needed for the classrooms.

The 2009 graduation will mark the culmination of a three-year master's degree program at the Waubun school. The program was developed as an off-shoot of the Lighthouse Grant, a high school reform grant from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Boyd Bradbury, former Waubun superintendent, is an associate professor and program coordinator for educational leadership at MSUM. He helped develop the program with the university and the school district.

He said the master's degree program came out of discussions surrounding the Lighthouse grant, along with research on what needed to be done to bring about change at the school.

Bradbury said the master's program is a template for what staff development should be in school districts.

"What I think is unique about this, in my estimation, this is the most legitimate and sustained effort at professional development that I've seen in the K-12 setting.

These teachers are doing a master's program over the course of three years," he said.

"They're constantly learning theories and concepts and very practical things that they can take into their classrooms and use, and they are getting the opportunity to see whether or not, when they try some of what they've learned in the classroom, whether or not that is successful in helping kids."

Bradbury said unique features of the program have been the willingness of MSUM to tailor the program at Waubun, where possible, to address issues facing the district, and also having professors and instructors go to the site, essentially bringing the university to the high school.

"You rarely get such a large part of the staff all engaged in the same type of programming over a long period of time. We really are confident that when you get that sort of effort there, that the odds of it having a positive impact on kids are far better than just a day here, a day there staff development," he said.

Bradbury said there are a lot of things that have to be worked out to make a program like the one at Waubun work.

"You have to have the support of local school boards and you have to have the support of university administration, and then you have to have faculty who are truly committed and willing to stick with the program," he said.

Bradbury said the master's students are looking at a variety of topics, from behavioral interventions to more academic things to raise test scores.

"I really hope that this sets the table for them to do this on a less formal basis in their classrooms even once the master's program is done. If they can continue to do that, I'm really hopeful that you're going to see increased success for all the kids there in that district and other districts that implement this kind of programming," he said.