DISTRICT | January 16, 2021
As a substitute teacher at Frazier International Magnet School in North Lawndale, Ms. Arlene Comendador enjoyed many parts of her day-to-day job—the leadership of her principal, teaching on the West Side of Chicago, and, above all else, working with students.
In particular, she had a passion for educating diverse learners and envisioned working for the district as a diverse learner teacher. For a while, the financial and time commitments of getting her special education endorsement meant putting her goal on hold.
But, this school year, she is leading a diverse learner classroom of her own—at Frazier, the school she loves to serve. Alongside her, 15 other CPS educators transitioned to diverse learner positions—mainly at high-need schools on the South and West Sides of the city—after earning their endorsement at National Louis University while receiving full tuition support from CPS.
This month, 70 more CPS educators will begin working toward becoming a licensed diverse learner teacher, and the district hopes the addition of three more university partners—Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, and St. Francis University—will make even greater impacts than the pilot program did in 2020.
“Advancing their education in this way is a testament to the fact that Chicago Public Schools teachers are always looking to grow in their fields,” said Dr. Robert Muller, Dean of the National College of Education at National Louis University (NLU). “Seeking additional education is a way of staying engaged, interested, and alive in an incredibly challenging work environment.”
At the core of earning one’s special education endorsement is learning to weave theory and practice across the key parts of special education—from assessments to instruction to social-emotional learning. This can look very different based on factors such as grade level, which is why CPS has specifically partnered with Chicago State University, an institution focused on and committed to innovative teacher preparation for educators looking to teach early childhood diverse learners.
“If we view education as a continuum of services, the leap between general education and special education in early childhood isn’t as wide because we recognize the fundamental need to facilitate instruction and utilize curriculum for diverse groups of students in a variety of settings,” said Dr. Carolyn Theard-Griggs, Dean of the College of Education at Chicago State University (CSU). “My hope is that educators view this program as an opportunity to truly meet the needs of all learners.”
Ms. Comendador notes that one of the biggest challenges of meeting the needs of her diverse learners this year has been the reality of teaching remotely. Near the beginning of the school year, she noticed that some of her students were not participating or even turning their cameras on.
By reflecting on what she learned through the endorsement program and collaborating closely with her colleagues, she created a virtual resource classroom rooted in support and encouragement that her students could join for a few minutes each school day. It was an idea that single handedly changed the level of engagement in her class.
“All my students needed was to be acknowledged because they wanted to be encouraged and to earn my trust,” said Ms. Comendador. “It’s incredibly rewarding to watch them participate and grow as students.”
With hyperlocal universities such as NLU and CSU partnering in these efforts, a big part of the program beyond helping CPS educators grow in their careers is creating new relationships across the city that will ultimately improve and reinforce education in Chicago at every level. The success of the program so far has led CPS to already begin planning for a second cohort of educators who would begin their coursework in March.
“It does my heart well knowing this partnership allows us to sit side-by-side,” said Dr. Griggs. “As the only public university on the South Side of Chicago, CSU recognizes the only way we can support our communities effectively is in partnership, and it feels like home knowing that we’re doing this good work together.”
At a macro level for CPS, the partnerships woven throughout this new endorsement program will help the district fill crucial vacancies to help more diverse learners receive the support and services that they deserve. And, at the micro level, Frazier International Magnet School in North Lawndale now has Ms. Comendador passionately teaching its sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade diverse learners—passion that is driving her to make an even bigger impact in her school community this year.
“My goal for this year is to help my students become more successful in the classroom and help them advocate for themselves,” said Ms. Comendador. “Even after they graduate, they can always reach out to me if they need help.”
Interested in learning about other opportunities for CPS educators or continuing your education with discounted tuition? Visit teach.cps.edu and cps.edu/keeplearning to learn more. You can also email program director Christine Judson at firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest in joining a future cohort of the special education endorsement program.