Chron: ACP

Sept. 23, 2003, 11:32AM

Good press for the ACP program in the Chron’s regional section of the paper.

Alternative certification draws ‘best teachers’

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Sometimes people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up until they’ve already grown. Then, if they’re lucky, a few find new careers in education were worth the wait.

So it was for Elsa Monsalve, music teacher at Crockett Elementary School, 2112 Crockett; Annette Sanchez-Mena, creator of the robotics program at Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill; Robert Pollock, principal at Looscan Elementary, 3800 Robertson; and Cliff Evans, High School for the Performing and Visual Arts orchestra director, 4001 Stanford.

The four are among approximately 800 teachers who have been hired through the Alternative Certification Program by the Houston school district each year since 1995 to fill classrooms left vacant by Texas colleges and universities, said Lisa Bunse, district spokeswoman.

“The state of Texas doesn’t produce nearly enough teachers from its colleges every year to fill our needs, considering we have to hire about a thousand new teachers every year,” Bunse said.

Through the ACP, people are sent to the University of St. Thomas, Rice University and other area colleges and universities for programs tailored to help them make the transition to the classroom and become certified by the state education board.

It’s a program that’s turned out to be pretty good for the district, Bunse said.

“They actually turn out to be some of the best teachers that we have. And the most interesting,” Bunse said.

Monsalve was training teachers at the University of Medellin in Colombia for six years before coming to the United States four years ago to visit friends who told her about the alternative certification program. She already had a teaching degree, but it wasn’t a piece of paper the state’s public school system accepted until this year, when the Texas Legislature changed that law, she said.

She gets to school about 7 a.m. to teach pre-kindergarten from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., then enrichment classes in music or choir, piano and violin through the afternoon, then an after-hours music program each day.

“We play all kinds of music for special occasions like Mother’s Day or our Christmas shows, and we’re always practicing,” she said.

The music she and Crockett Elementary are best known for are patriotic tunes, specifically God Bless America, for which she played piano as the Crockett choir sang as the recorded background for a program during the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, conducted at Ground Zero exactly a year after terrorists drove planes into the Twin Towers that once stood there, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

“Fox TV requested our orchestra and they came to the school and videotaped the kids playing music and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It was used at the first commemoration day when President Bush (was) talking. The background music was us,” Monsalve said.

It is for such things that Monsalve calls her pupils her “super-stars.”

Not content to teach notes on a page and their translation by voice, piano or violin, Monsalve strives to imbue in her students a sense of self-confidence.

“To me, this job is rewarding personally,” she said. “Every morning, you get up knowing that somebody needs you, that nobody can just take your place,” she said. “Some jobs, they don’t even notice if you’re not there. Not like this job.”

Alternative certification has provided excellent teachers for the school, said Elida Troutman, Crockett principal for 30 years.

“They come to us with so much experience, not just in the classroom, but outside experience. They are multiply skilled and come with hands-on knowledge, after a first or even a second career, with a lot of the courses they have already taken for their degrees,” she said.

Most of all, Troutman said, alternative certification teachers come with a desire to teach children.

“They have tremendous drive,” she said.

Other alternative-certified or certification-pending teachers at Crockett include Louis Cabrera, who has played in symphony orchestras throughout the world and now conducts the school’s orchestra and marimba ensemble, ambassadors of good will for the school. Also included is Dannita Bloom, a professional pianist and soprano, who teaches language arts and also volunteers to help children not in her classroom through several youth outreach programs in Houston.

Another now working on becoming certified is Lawrence Spence, a recent graduate of the University of Houston Downtown, who is using his background in environmental science and nature studies as a naturalist guide for Houston Ship Channel and San Jacinto River excursions as the school’s coordinator for Bayou Preservation Association of Houston. He is building a 5,000-square-foot nature area with a pond and wetland.

Pollock was born and raised in Venezuela and, like his father, worked in the offshore oil business. He also owned his own remodeling business in Austin. But even during those years, he knew he’d rather be a teacher, as his mother, sister, cousins and an aunt had become.

“I had a family and kids and I couldn’t afford it then,” he said. “But a good friend of mine was a bilingual teacher and told me about the ACP program and said they really needed bilingual teachers.”

In those days, he said, the school district paid interns to go through the program because the need was so great for teachers that the school district often had to open its doors with many vacancies.

“It was intimidating just getting in front of the kids, on our feet from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day with a 30-minute lunch break — being `on’ all the time, then going home to take care of all kinds of other obligations,” he said.

He got his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Texas in Austin in the mid-1980s, meeting in classrooms provided by the Houston school district and an on-campus mentor that constantly scrutinized his work with his mostly socioeconomically at-risk third- and fourth-graders, he said.

“I also did a lot of reading about education and lots of training because I felt I was late in the game,” he said. “I started following the kids from third to fourth to fifth grades, so I got to know them pretty well and could start teaching them from day one.”

He got his master’s degree in education management from the University of Houston Downtown in 2000 and when the school’s principal went to Reagan High School, Pollock applied for and got the job.

Alternative certification has changed a lot in the last decade-and-a-half, Pollock said, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that the program provides the school district with leaders — administrators, teachers of the year and highly praised educators.

“It’s wonderful for education that we can do this, that there’s already a highly select group — it’s not like they’re taking people off the street,” said Pollock.

Four years ago, Evans had done all but his dissertation for a doctorate from the University of Houston on the subject of orchestral performance as practiced in the late 18th century and was helping to start the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and direct the Houston Civic Symphony when he got a telephone call from a friend, asking him if he’d be interested in a teaching job with the HSPVA orchestra.

“Their director had left late in the year, so they were left trying to find one,” he said. “I thought I was definitely not going to teach at the high school level.”

But it wasn’t just any high school that was asking.

“The orchestra of HSPVA is a real ambassador for the Houston school district,” he said. “They performed at the State of the Schools Convention at Reliant Center last year in January. They send string quartets to various functions during the year and they’re very visible in the school district.”

In addition to the load he had taken on in pursuing his doctorate and work with the other orchestras, saying yes to HSPVA meant starting on a deficiency plan through an emergency certification program.

“So I looked at alternative certification for music, all of the basic requirements, which took several months over the summer — two straight months of classes — through Texas Education Agency Region IV’s satellite offices in Cy-Fair,” he said.

He taught for three years while he finished the program, which he did last spring, and still managed to keep up with his other orchestral obligations.

“I went from being in school to having these all at the same time. Gilbert and Sullivan is only operational during the summer and HSPVA is September through May, but the civic symphony and now the Houston Youth Symphony go on throughout the year.”

He found that he liked directing a high school orchestra, especially one that only accepted the best young talent in the region.

“I loved it after a week, because of the unique situation. The students are very mature and very dedicated. They all audition to get in and they have to perform at a certain level to get in, plus keep up grades and other academic subjects while performing in their art area,” Evans said. “It’s very rigorous.”

The HSPVA 70-member symphony and 40-member chamber orchestra frequently perform in area churches, music institutes and colleges and universities, including the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston. Last year, the school’s music department earned the Grammy Signature School status, an honor for which high school orchestras compete throughout the United States.

“My job is to teach students about the joys and the methods with which you play classical music, all theories and styles,” Evans said. “To nurture kids who have artistic knowledge, the team work, the discipline and a spiritual connection to the music and to others — my job is to make that happen at HSPVA.”

It didn’t take Sanchez-Mena long to figure out she needed to be in a classroom.

It was an option at the back of her mind at the University of Texas in San Antonio, where she majored in biology with the idea of going into research or a science lab or, failing both of those, maybe into teaching.

While finishing her degree in 2000, she was hired at Hogg and began at mid-year in January 2001 to incorporate a robotics program while completing alternative certification requirements.

“Where the numbers of teachers coming out of the universities has stayed pretty consistent, not all are going into the teaching field,” said Mary Charley, director of the credentials office at the State Board for Education Certification “The alternate programs allow them to go ahead and take content certification early in the program. We test early and let them test often.”

After school and on weekends, Sanchez-Mena took what she learned through her technical and inside-the-classroom studies in robotics and wrote the state’s curriculum for that subject, then held two workshops for teachers who want to start the course at their schools.

“The year before last, we were the only middle school to have a robotics program in Houston,” she said. “Now we’re extremely pleased and proud of everything we’re accomplishing with these kids and in other schools.”

Among those accomplishments are trophies and other awards for winning first and second place and inclusion in the final four during a national robotics competition in April, as well as the Botball 2003 Texas Regional Robotics Tournament in March.

It’s important to Johnny Davila, 13, now in Sanchez-Mena’s eighth-grade class, who made a robot that can grab loops from tiny trees made of interlocking plastic parts or clear fabricated rocks from a tiny soccer field.

“It lets us get more creative in life,” he said. “If you’re going to be a car designer, you need to know how to construct it and make it go.”

Mornings for Sanchez-Mena start at 6:30 a.m. — sometimes an hour earlier if there’s a competition going on — and her week always includes Saturdays and after-school sessions to assist robotics students at Hogg and other nearby schools that have incorporated the program.

Because Hogg students are largely from low- to moderate-income Hispanic homes, Sanchez-Menz often supplements her students’ morning meals by bringing breakfasts of pizza or tacos and orange juice.

To pay for trips to robotics competitions out of town, students own and operate a cafe outside the school’s cafeteria, where they fill orders for pizza, or sell candy, soda and chips, as well as T-shirts. Last year they raised about $4,000, Sanchez-Mena said.

In addition to her regular class schedule and the outside-class time Sanchez-Mena spends with her students, she and some of her students take their show on the road to area elementary and middle schools to present a computerized slide show and question-and-answer sessions about the robotics program.

She also has accumulated a master’s degree in economics and entrepreneurship through the University of Delaware, and she was married just two weeks ago. She said she doesn’t feel the extra hours she puts into her classes are, though not required by her job description, beyond her calling.

“This is a 90-percent minority school. Just to see them be successful and develop self-esteem and work as a team — it’s all quite rewarding,” Sanchez Mena said.

Hogg’s principal, Deborah Crowe, believes she’s one of the school’s best.

“She’s absolutely wonderful, one of my pride-and-joy teachers,” Crowe said.