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a teacher helps a student with his assignment

Gaining pre-service practicum experience during the sun-drenched summer months is a challenge for students pursuing teaching certification. But this summer, The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education teamed up with the nonprofit Breakthrough Austin, forging a relationship that gives our students a chance to gain valuable teaching experience and professional development hours needed for certification.

“Each day, the students blew us away with the knowledge they brought into the classroom along with their desire to remain committed to an academic program during their precious summer vacation,” says Dhara Lad, a UTeach Urban Teachers (UTUT) junior. “The greatest moments at Breakthrough involved seeing students have their very own breakthroughs, whether that be in finding books enjoyable, overcoming a math strategy, identifying college as a priority, or breaking out of their shell and stepping into positions of leadership and public speaking roles.”

Lad, who is majoring in International Relations and Global Studies and Asian Cultures and Languages, taught 7th graders African American Civil Rights and Make It Up as You Go, an improvisation class. When asked about the summer experience, she admits it was exhausting but worth it: “The program allowed us to tweak existing curriculum while also giving us the complete freedom to design and execute our own lessons and unit plans, incorporating material relevant to the lives of our students like gentrification, immigration, gay marriage and racism.”

Breakthrough Austin is part of a national nonprofit system that provides out-of-school learning and academic case management to students from low-income communities who will be the first in their families to graduate from college. The service lasts from middle school through college. During the summer break, middle school students take academic classes. They also spend time learning skills and receiving counseling that will help them succeed academically and navigate a world that is new to them and their families. Though the Breakthrough summer program has taken place at UT for more than a decade, this is the first year College of Education students have taken part as instructors.

“Finding meaningful summer placements where our students gain professional development hours is a struggle,” explains Thea Williamson, a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and instructional coach for the Breakthrough project. “Earlier in the year, Cinthia Salinas (Curriculum and Instruction chair and professor) reached out to Breakthrough to offer the services of UTeach Urban Teachers students as summer school academic instructors. It was a win-win,” she says.

UTeach Urban Teachers prepares English and Social Studies educators to thrive in the context of urban schools. UTUT students took two classes this semester: Literacy Across the Disciplines, taught by College of Education graduate student Alina Pruitt, and Sociocultural Influences on Learning, taught by graduate student Kevin Magill. The courses gave UTUT students theoretical knowledge pertinent to teaching students with diverse cultural backgrounds, like those at Breakthrough.

Says Magill, “The partnership gave our students a unique, supportive community environment to develop their skills through first-hand experience. They were able to develop fairly dynamic insights into many elements of teaching in a short time. As a cohort they came together in support of each other and their students, having developed confidence in the classroom, in the community, and working with parents. They now understand what creative, interesting lesson plans look like and how to implement them. They are quite prepared for their intern teaching experience this fall.”

Michael Griffith, executive director of Breakthrough Austin, says he’s excited about the new relationship between the college and his organization. “The College of Education at UT is one of the best colleges of education in the country. It’s remarkable that our students get to benefit from that. I’m very humbled by it.”