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As New York schools face increasing pressure to improve student performance, state and local education leaders want to put more highly qualified teachers into the neediest classrooms.

They mean teachers like Mary Dileas, who before each lesson at Emerson School of Hospitality anticipates the challenges her students may face learning a skill, then develops strategies to overcome those barriers before they even arrive in her classroom.

Dileas is a math teacher, and Emerson is known for its culinary program. So she uses cooking measurements to teach the math skills they will need to pass the Regents exam.

And during one recent lesson, she prompted her students to not only identify the right answer but articulate, “How do you know it?”

“She makes math fun, and she just makes it exciting,” said Emerson freshman Jessica Fuller. “She really cares about our education.”

“She makes kids want to go to school,” added freshman Ithieo Jenkins.

Such approaches put Dileas among the latest four Buffalo Public Schools teachers to earn the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. That brings to 13 the number of city teachers to join the small, yet elite group of educators who have earned the designation. Statewide, only about 1,600 teachers have earned it.

Now, in a push to get teachers like Dileas into the state’s highest-needs classrooms, New York is partnering with the National Board on an initiative that aims to offer support and financial incentives for teachers interested in pursuing the certification.

“It’s caused me to really think about what I’m doing in the classroom, and how students respond to specific, anticipated errors,” Dileas said of the National Board certification process. “It’s helped me to be more reflective and insightful of the moments, the actual moments of learning.”

Maximizing talent

In Buffalo, school leaders also are looking at how to parlay the skills of a relative handful of these “advanced” teachers into a mechanism for lifting achievement districtwide.

At School 19, where Karli Sullivan also earned the certification, Principal Linda Brancatella said she hopes Sullivan will be able to share her newfound expertise with other teachers, possibly by modeling lessons or giving feedback on their teaching.

Rather than ending with a wall plaque, the certification process prompts teachers to focus on helping students understand why they are learning certain skills, and to make connections between how things they learn in school will translate in the real world. The process focuses on identifying each student’s style of learning and figuring out the best strategies to help them succeed in the classroom.

“It’s a very reflective process,” Sullivan said. “It makes you think about how you’re doing things and why you’re doing them.”

Those skills are especially important in classrooms like hers. Sullivan, who is certified to teach students with special needs, works alongside another classroom teacher to help children with disabilities thrive in a traditional classroom setting.

Her classroom also includes a mix of students who are learning to speak English, or who come from low-income backgrounds. About 96 percent of students at School 19 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the school district’s measure of poverty. About 31 percent are learning English.

Sullivan helps the children acclimate by breaking them into groups based on their skill sets so that she can target the students’ specific needs, rather than trying to teach to a whole group of students with varying abilities.

Her students spend time working both independently and in small groups, which allows more advanced students to help those struggling while Sullivan guides them through their assignments.

Earning certificate

Teachers earn the certification after spending hundreds of hours putting together portfolios, videos, lesson plans and samples that document their work in the classroom.

The materials are supposed to show their mastery of a subject and how well they teach it to students. Most teachers take a year or two to complete the program, while continuing to work in the classroom.

In Buffalo, teachers can get feedback on their work and guidance through the Buffalo Teacher Center, which offers training and professional development to teachers throughout the region. Some districts also offer teachers who have completed the program a financial stipend.

“It means so much that they have chosen to go through the rigors of obtaining National Board certification in order to ensure student success,” said Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown. “This is another example of how people in this district strive toward excellence in education.”

But the rigors of the program – and the cost – historically have been prohibitive to many teachers interested in the certification.

The program now costs about $2,565, and while a state fund offers financial assistance, candidates still need to cover some of the costs up front. The National Board is also looking to decrease the cost.

Removing barriers

State leaders hope the new partnership with the National Board will help remove some of those barriers, particularly in school districts where students have the greatest academic needs.

We’ve always had National Board teachers throughout the state, but what we haven’t had is a state priority to identify teachers who have gone through the process and place them in high-needs schools,” said Stephanie Wood-Garnett, the state’s assistant commissioner for teacher and leader effectiveness.

New York was one of four states selected to participate in the program with the National Board, which for two decades has overseen the prestigious national certification. The board identified states that already have demonstrated a commitment to the certification program, as well as a willingness to work with labor groups to build professional development and training opportunities for teachers. The other states are Kentucky, Nevada and Washington. School districts in Albuquerque and San Francisco also are participating.

The state will receive $1.5 million for each of the next three years to put toward creating support networks and offering financial incentives in high-needs districts. Those teachers also may be tapped to take on leadership and mentoring roles, including helping with the implementation of the Common Core standards.

“We have to ask the question of how can we focus on our students in our high-needs schools and get them the teachers they deserve,” said Geneviève DeBose, a director of educator engagement with the National Board. “Those are the students who really need highly qualified teachers focused on their improvement.”

The logistics of the program are still being worked out, but the state wants to target at least five high-needs districts.

School districts will be invited to submit proposals to the state this spring, and teachers will be able to participate by the start of the next school year. Buffalo school officials say that they will apply to get some of the funding and are eager to increase their ranks of National Board certified teachers.

Besides helping other School 19 teachers, Brancatella said she hopes Sullivan also will encourage other teachers to go through the certification process.

“This is objective proof that she has the qualifications, and she was willing to work for it,” she said of Sullivan. We can change some of that perception that we have teachers who don’t care, or aren’t qualified or able to reach our children.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com