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College's Project Alpine director says commitment is key element for student teachers

Program participants must agree to work three-year stint at partner schools after earning certification

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Tyrell Taylor
  • Program participants receive $20,000 scholarships that are paid out in installments as they progress through the program.
  • Only 10 of the 13 people who applied for the program last fall at San Juan College were accepted.
  • The student teachers in the program are being trained at schools throughout San Juan County.

FARMINGTON — There are many elements to the Project Alpine III scholarship program at San Juan College, but participant Tyrell Taylor has figured out how to boil it down to a single sentence.

"For me, it's about understanding how to teach kids who don't have the same background as I do," Taylor said, describing the alternative teacher licensure program he joined last fall.

Alpine III is focused on training student teachers in schools throughout San Juan County that serve a high number of Native students. Program participants already have a bachelor's degree in a different field and are pursuing a teaching certificate.

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They are taught a culturally responsive approach, or pedagogy, to teaching that helps learners who may struggle with more traditional, standardized forms of classroom instruction to succeed.

Taylor, who is undergoing his training at Rocinante High School in Farmington, is thrilled to be a part of that effort.

"We're helping kids and understanding how to teach kids who come from a background that public education isn't really designed to help," said Taylor, who was born and raised in Farmington. "That is an incredibly exciting opportunity to me. If you want to help your community, the best thing you can do is get into a program like this."

Kari Deswood

That's the kind of commitment that Kari Deswood, the program director and coordinator of teacher education at San Juan College, looks for when she screens potential program participants. The program is a demanding one, placing its participants — or scholars, as Deswood likes to call them — in circumstances that can be far more challenging than a regular classroom. It also requires them to commit to working for three years after they obtain their teaching certificate at schools where their unique skills are most in need.

In exchange, those participants receive $20,000 scholarships that are paid out in installments as they progress through the program. Only 10 of the 13 people who applied for the program last fall at San Juan College were accepted, and Deswood knows it isn't for everyone.

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The state historically has struggled to attract good public school teachers to many districts, she said, pointing to its below-average salaries, its lack of adequate technology in many rural areas and the limited housing options that await those who move to remote locations. That problem has been made worse by the challenges of having to teach remotely since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Deswood said that has created a level of stress that some teachers simply have been unwilling to endure any longer, driving them from the profession.

But others seem to find great rewards in working under less-than-ideal circumstances, and those are the kind of scholars Deswood looks for in applicants to the Alpine program — perhaps even more than a natural gift for teaching.

"They don't need to know everything there is to know about teaching," she said. "They just need to have a willingness to learn and serve students."

Not having to go it alone

Kaleigh Graham, another Project Alpine scholar, is doing her student teaching at Piedra Vista High School, her alma mater, where she also is serving as an assistant coach for the girls basketball team. She described herself as beyond pleased with her Project Alpine experience and is undaunted about the three-year commitment to continue teaching at the school that awaits her when she earns her certification.

Kayleigh Graham

"I don't see myself leaving anytime soon," she said.

Graham said the mentoring she has received through the program has gone a long way toward making her feel comfortable. But she said the sense of camaraderie that has developed among the 10 members of this year's Project Alpine cohort has been equally valuable to her.

"I honestly don't know where I'd be if I were going through this alone," she said, explaining that she and her fellow scholars often compare notes on their experiences and explore ideas for improving communication with their students. "It'd be a lonely world."

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Deswood said building that sense of teamwork among the 10 scholars is one of the program's primary goals.

"We're really trying to keep them in a cohort," she said. "Research shows that if you can do that, they can rely on this for support. … As a first-year teacher, it's critical they know where they can get support."

Karen Dixon

Karen Dixon, who helps Deswood administer the program at the college, said the pandemic has made it impossible for her to even come face-to-face with this year's cohort. But she reiterated the importance of those scholars knowing that support is available to them — both from other cohort members and from their mentors — as the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated so many normal opportunities for interaction.

"It's not about having standards and objectives and lesson plans," she said. "It's about reaching out to the human side of students and scholars. Our mentoring program is significant in terms of helping our scholars become effective."

Beaten to the punch

Taylor, who graduated from Rocinante back in 2008, credited the school for giving him a good foundation and said he was eager to return the favor in his new role there.

"I would not have my high school diploma or college degree if not for that school," he said.

He said when he began his training at the school last fall, he had a lot of ideas about how to work with its students, who are there to take advantage of the smaller class sizes, flexible scheduling and credit-recovery programs that Rocinante specializes in as an "alternative" institution. He quickly discovered, to his delight, that a good many of those notions already had been implemented since he graduated more than a decade ago.

"Which is awesome," he said, adding that, in spite of the pandemic, he feels like he has been given all the resources he needs to help his students learn.

Piedra Vista's Graham said she had no idea what a culturally responsible pedagogy was before she joined Project Alpine. But over the past several months, she has come to a different perspective that has helped her thrive as a teacher and a person, she said.

"This allows you to open up your lens and see things in a different way," she said. "It's pretty incredible."

To learn more about the Project Alpine III scholarship program or the other teacher education programs at the college, visit sanjuancollege.edu/projectalpineiii/ or sanjuancollege.edu/teacherscholarships/.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.