Andover, Mass. — Brown University graduate student Dallas Lopez remembers when the faculty at the Institute for Teacher Recruitment here in this historic New England town had given him so much assigned reading that he simply wanted to call it quits.
“I had not been sleeping. There was more reading than I could handle. I got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore,” Lopez, 24, recalls. “I said, ‘Enough is enough. I can’t do it.’”
But then the faculty informed Lopez that the heavy reading was being assigned on purpose to prepare him and his fellow IRT students for the demands of graduate school. The program was founded in 1990 to help diversify the ranks of America’s educators at the K-12 and collegiate levels. Instructors helped Lopez learn how to skim material for important points rather than reading books from cover to cover.
Today, Lopez, a 2009 IRT alum, says he’s thankful for that and other experiences he got at IRT. He will soon wrap up his graduate studies in high school English.
Like other IRT alumni, Lopez, a member of the Pima Tribe of Arizona, says he likely would not have made it to or through graduate school without the help of IRT.
“I think they challenged me a little bit past what I thought I could handle,” he says. “They supported me through that so I could handle it.”
Similar accounts of IRT’s impact were easy to collect over the weekend as Lopez and dozens of other IRT alumni gathered in this old mill town and former Underground Railroad stop to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the program.
The event represented a welcome milestone for IRT founder Kelly Wise, who remembers wondering when he launched IRT how many of its students would go on to earn Ph.D.s. Today, such wondering has turned into wonderment as 135 of the 1,400 students IRT has served over the years have gone on to earn their doctoral degrees. Approximately 200 more alumni are currently pursuing their Ph.D.s. Overall, IRT’s alumni include 125 K-12 teachers, 95 school administrators, eight tenured faculty and 25 tenure-track faculty.
“That’s a wonderful surprise,” Wise says.
The success of IRT over the years was further reflected in the diversity and varied accomplishments of the celebration’s attendees, who ranged from alumni who attended IRT during the 1990s to members of recent classes who are just months shy of earning graduate degrees. They included high school teachers who work in public charter schools that serve students who’ve been kicked out of regular schools, university faculty who teach language and literature and university administrators who focus on easing the path to college for students from under-represented groups.
At times, IRT alumni spoke of feelings of isolation and marginalization as members of under-represented groups whose ideas often find trouble gaining acceptance. But they were also optimistic that their ongoing affiliation with IRT will make it easier for them and future IRT students to stay the course in the teaching profession.
Located on historic Phillips Academy with an annual operating budget of $700,000 and a staff of six, IRT is a four-week summer institute for aspiring educators who are college juniors, seniors or recent graduates. The program prepares them for graduate school by providing assistance with preparing for the GRE, developing and refining their statements of purpose and obtaining fee waivers for graduate school applications. The summer institute serves about 30 students. There is also an associate program for an additional 70 or so students. Both groups are given mentoring throughout their graduate school experience.
Part of the idea behind having the students go to graduate school is to raise the level of knowledge and skills that they will bring to the classroom, irrespective of whether they ultimately will teach kindergarten, as some IRT alumni do, or at the post-secondary level.
For a fee of $1,000, 41 universities belong to the IRT consortium and recruit students from IRT.
Dr. Alan Kendrick, the assistant dean for graduate student development at Duke University, says Duke belongs to IRT “because of the quality of students that it brings to the table.”
“This is important, especially with institutions like Duke that are highly selective and also wanting to bring in more diverse student populations, especially for the graduate student population,” he says.
Among other things, Kendrick says IRT provides students with a “realistic vision of the process of applying to graduate school.”
“It’s not just about putting in an application,” he says. “It’s about putting in an application that speaks to why you are a qualified candidate for the particular graduate degree that the institution is offering.”
” What happens,” Kendrick continues, “is typically students of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not get the help and support that they need to overcome the hurdles of graduate school, and that first hurdle is the application process.”
Wise says he knows the impact of IRT is difficult to discern in the grand scheme of things. But it’s a model that holds a lot of promise for diversifying the ranks of America’s educators.
“Granted, it’s a small program,” he says. “But I think it’s a perfect size for where it’s sited. If we can turn out 100 to 110 every year that are going into graduate studies and are going to be professors or principals or department chairmen for universities or secondary or elementary school teachers, I’m more than happy.”
Asabe W. Poloma, director of IRT, says future plans include building on IRT’s success by creating a stronger alumni network.
“The hope is the next 20 years will really take us to where we can see admirable transformation in higher education,” Poloma says.