Community colleges have not traditionally been the training grounds for teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade, who have generally been trained at four-year and higher education institutions.

But that is changing — both nationally and at Santa Monica College (SMC) — as the United States struggles with a teacher shortage, particularly in the areas of science, math and special education, according to Al Solano, project manager for SMC’s major teacher training initiatives.

“For too long, we’ve forgotten about a population of students — community college students — who we could be educating to become our future teachers,” says Solano.

Fueled by federal Title V grant money and a team of professors, counselors and administrators, in just two years the college has become a training ground for future teachers.

An independent evaluator recently called the joint SMC-El Camino College teacher education programs “national models for management and organization.”

Since fall 1994, SMC, through its Teacher Academy, has taken several steps in its campaign to enlist future elementary and high school teachers, get them excited about the field and give them a jump-start in their training before the transfer to a four-year college or university.

These moves, according to Sarita Santos, Teacher Academy project manager and instructor, include:

n the addition of education classes specifically tailored to future K-12 teachers (in the past, SMC offered only pre-school training courses);

n the establishment of the Education Pathways Information Center in the Library Village, a “one-stop shop” for students’ questions about teacher education and where students can meet with education counselor Jose Cue two days a week (he is also at the Bundy Campus two days);

n the opening, 18 hours a week, of a Teacher Resource Room at the Bundy Campus, available to students as well as teachers in the community; staffed by student mentors, the facility provides resources and materials to help students conduct research and create lesson plans and classroom materials;

n the establishment of The Copernicus Project, which includes a summer program for prospective math and science teachers held at the University of California at Riverside, where SMC students conduct science experiments and are introduced to teaching skills, presentation techniques and more; the program provides students a $1,000 stipend and free room and board at UC-Riverside;

n the offering of several future teacher workshops every semester that cover such issues as credentialing and financial aid; and

n the establishment of a Future Educators Club and The Kids at Heart Club that sponsor a wide range of activities, including field trips and movie nights.

Of the 417 students in the SMC Teacher Academy, 76 percent want to teach at the elementary and high school levels.

This is an improvement, given that three years ago the department focused almost exclusively on training pre-school teachers and childcare workers, college officials say.

In addition, many SMC students majoring in other disciplines are being sought as future teachers — particularly in science and math disciplines, in which the teacher shortage is acute.

“It’s extremely difficult to attract science and math students to the education profession,” Solano said. “SMC students who excel in math and science are typically not looking to become teachers.

“For example, there are misconceptions about low salaries in teaching, so we let them know that they can earn, depending on the school district, a starting annual salary of $40,000 to $50,000 with a bachelor’s degree and credential — with summers off.”

The other challenge, he says, is that many science and math majors are focused on getting into medical school.

Solano points out that only a small minority of students — an average of less than five percent — are accepted into medical school and that it is wiser for math and science majors to explore the teaching profession.

Solano says The Copernicus Project has gone a long way in stirring excitement among these students.

The Copernicus Project “was an amazing experience,” said SMC math major Scott Ingwersen. “We thought about how we would incorporate a research-based strategy into our own lesson plans.

“I was constantly thinking about how each seminar could be related to a math lesson, so the diversity of topics was not only stimulating but also served to remind me that all the sciences are interrelated.”

Santa Monica College is not just looking at academic achievers as candidates for future teachers. The college is also targeting students whose school performance is not particularly stellar.

“Some people say, ‘Why help these students if they don’t do well academically? How can they teach?,'” Solano says. “The irony is that many students who become great teachers are the ones who struggled in school.

“They understand firsthand what it means to struggle so they come up with creative lesson plans and approaches to helping students learn.”

Solano says the Teacher Academy provides a number of special services to help these students perform better academic- ally. Not all the SMC students who are recruited as potential future teachers end up going into the field, but Solano says that is actually a good thing.

“Sometimes students get their bachelor’s degrees and teaching credentials only to discover they do not like teaching,” he says. “The program at SMC allows our students to find out early on whether this is a career they want to pursue.”

The Teacher Academy team continues to build on its early success to foster a growing pool of future educators.

“What we’re really excited about is our interdisciplinary ‘apple courses’, which we introduced this semester,” Santos said. “In addition to regular content, these apple courses also infuse pedagogy, that is, how to teach the content.”

Apple courses currently being offered are in science, math, geography, speech, psychology and more.

In addition, the college launched a pilot Teacher Assistant program this semester, giving students an opportunity to be assistants in several of the apple courses while being mentored by the professors.

“I think it’s very important for community colleges to define their piece of training our future educators,” Cue says. “We’re all very excited about the future prospects. It’s an exciting program and it can be even more exciting.”