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Friday, June 16, 2006 - Page updated at 01:17 AM

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New-teacher support program gets an A

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The first year of teaching for Claire Beilner meant coming up with lesson plans from scratch, teaching a new curriculum and keeping a classroom operating smoothly — a daunting task, even though she felt prepared for the job.

But whenever the new teacher at Rose Hill Junior High was stumped, there was Karen Ripley, a full-time consulting teacher with Lake Washington School District.

About once a week, Beilner could expect to see Ripley popping into her classroom, sometimes bearing chocolate or other goodies, but always with an encouraging word and ready to listen when the new teacher needed to unload or ask questions.

It's all part of the district's New Teacher Support Program, which offers teachers in their first and second years added support through one-on-one mentoring.

The district announced last week that it is among six districts nationwide being honored by the National Education Association (NEA) for their outstanding new-teacher mentoring programs.

The awards, which are given by the NEA in conjunction with Saturn Corp. and the United Auto Workers, are meant to encourage such programs with the hope they will ultimately reduce new-teacher turnover, which has become a national problem, said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association (WEA), the NEA's state affiliate.

Lake Washington's mentoring program was key for Beilner when it came to deciding where to work.

"I had job offers elsewhere, but I knew I wanted to be here because of the support they offered," Beilner said. "It was one of the biggest factors in me coming here, and it will keep me here at Lake Washington School District."

According to a report by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, one in 10 Washington teachers has left the profession after the first year of teaching, and one in three will leave after five years. Also, while student enrollment is rising rapidly, more than a million veteran teachers are nearing retirement.

"The lack of support for new teachers, coupled along with the continuing-education requirement and the fact that a starting teacher's salary is barely $30,000 are all determining factors in how long people stay in the profession," Wood said. "The concern is that many people don't see teaching as a lifelong profession anymore."

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When the district started the program five years ago, its retention rate for new teachers was about 50 percent per year. Now, new-teacher retention is at about 80 to 85 percent annually, said Don Livezey, a Lake Washington consulting teacher.

In general, the consulting teachers have years of experience, have had leadership roles, and have worked for both elementary and secondary schools within the district, Livezey said.

Much of the district's increased retention rate can be credited to the mentoring program, said Kevin Teeley, president of the Lake Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the WEA.

Lake Washington's program stands out from other districts' mentoring programs in part because it has six consulting teachers who work full time counseling and guiding new teachers.

"And everything that is said between us is strictly confidential," said Ripley, who taught for 20 years before she became a full-time mentor.

Many new teachers are reluctant to discuss problems in the classroom with their principal, but they can be open and frank with their consulting teacher, she said.

A consulting teacher also does two formal classroom observations for each new teacher, to provide feedback before the teacher is evaluated by an administrator, which provides a leg up on what to expect, Ripley said.

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637

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