About a week before South-Western City School District students returned to school, about 75 teachers chose to spend time in school themselves.

The teachers participated in a four-day professional development program offered by Columbia University.

The teachers, who work with grades K-8, participated in Teachers College held Aug. 13-16 at Jackson Middle School.

The program is designed to help teachers learn methods that encourage their students to develop their skills and enthusiasm for reading and writing, said Brad Faust, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum.

Over the last few years, South-Western has been able to send some of its literacy coaches to Teachers College seminars at Columbia's New York City campus.

"It's very competitive just to get a teacher accepted for their campus program," curriculum coordinator Margaret Towery said. "They get thousands of applications for every institute they offer in New York."

The value of being able to host a program locally is hard to overstate, she said.

"Instead of having a few people go and bring back ideas and suggestions from what they've learned, we were able to have dozens of our teachers participate," she said. "And they will all be able to take what they've learned and share it with their colleagues."

"The level of participation we got from our teachers was phenomenal," Faust said. "They weren't required to do this. They wanted to participate in the program. That level of commitment to professional development will pay dividends in the classroom."

While professional development programs for both reading and writing are offered through Teachers College, South-Western's local workshop focused on reading.

"Reading is really the foundation of every subject in school," Faust said. "Some students excel in reading and some struggle. We want to find ways our teachers can connect with and respond to the individual needs of each student."

The program aims to help teachers instill not just reading skills in their students but to encourage students in taking ownership of their own reading efforts, Towery said.

Columbia tailors the "homegrown institutes" held in schools across the country toward a district's particular needs, she said.

Three program leaders came to South-Western, each coordinating a session for a specific grade band, Towery said.

"We had about 25 teachers participating in each grade band -- K-2, 3-5 and 6-8, and they were from just about every school in our district," she said. "It's going to help spread the wealth of information from the program even farther across our district."

The reading homegrown institute covers topics that include building a reading culture, foundational reading skills, toolkits to support strategic reading, writing about reading and using read-aloud to support higher comprehension.

Tracy Hinterschied, a third-grade inclusion teacher at Buckeye Woods Elementary School, was among the teachers who participated.

"What is so valuable about their approach is the idea of teachers thinking about getting inside the heads of their students and understanding what they are thinking about reading," Hinterschied said. "It's a very child-centered way of teaching. Sometimes that gets lost with all the focus on assessments and the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee these days.

"We're looking for ways to encourage students to become life-long learners and life-long readers," she said.

Teachers should be life-long learners as well, Hinterschied said, and that's the value of professional development.

"You never should stop learning new methods and approaches to your teaching," she said. "I've been teaching for 26 years and to have an opportunity like this to extend my professional development is so exciting."

Teachers will continue to have a connection through Facebook with Teachers College personnel, Hinterschied said.

"We'll be able to continue the dialogue and discussion we started during the week they were here and exchange ideas about what we're doing in our classrooms," she said.

The program also allows for extended collaboration within the district, Hinterschied said.

"I've connected with teachers from other schools in our district who were participating in the program and we'll be able to work on collaboration efforts even through we are in different buildings," Hinterschied said.

The value of Teachers College is the ripple effect it can have in a district as teachers who participate share what they've learned, Faust said.

Being able to offer the program in-house will make the ripple larger for South-Western, he said.

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