Five Questions for Cindy Gutierrez

Director, Urban Community Teacher Education Program, UC Denver

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Cindy Gutierrez, Ph.D., says she "stumbled into" what has become the most passionate part of her work as an educator: tending to the success of students in urban schools. The Pueblo native came from a lineage of teaching – her grandmother once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Yuma County – but she hadn't thought much about urban schools until she began her own career working in them.

At the University of Colorado Denver for the past four years, she has put that experience to use in reinventing theSchool of Education and Human Development's teacher preparation program. She's director of Urban Community Teacher Education, which partners with Denver-area schools and communities to make sure the next generation of teachers is equipped to thrive in increasingly diverse classrooms.

She works where she earned her Ph.D., while her master's degree is from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She received her bachelor's degree at the University of Northern Colorado.

— Jay Dedrick

1. How long has it taken to establish the Urban Community Teacher Education program?

It's taken three years to get where it is now. We always had a highly respected teacher preparation program, and had strong partnerships with our six metro-area school districts, where our teacher candidates intern. We're really trying to answer the question of, what does it take to prepare an exceptional urban teacher? What's the unique knowledge and what are the skills they need to be effective?

When we say 'urban,' it's not necessarily referring to geography. We're talking about schools with significant percentages of students of color, students often living in poverty, students for whom English is not their first language.

We make sure our teacher candidates have internships in urban classrooms, and we really work to help them see that the school and its surrounding community are not places filled with challenges, but that those communities have significant assets that are sorely undervalued in our education system.

2. How do your teacher candidates go about engaging with the communities where they teach?

They have to get past their assumptions. The media – the general news media, but also Hollywood – typically inform us that urban schools are scary places with gang problems and too many challenges that can't be overcome. We demystify that and help them engage with families and organizations.

For example, we might have a teacher candidate who is planning a social studies lesson on immigration. They can really collaborate with families who have immigrated here from Mexico or somewhere else and invite them to be part of the learning: What's it like to be a new immigrant in this country? Or a teacher candidate might start an after-school club for kids that might connect with another club at a local church, or a Boys and Girls Club. They learn there's a lot more to teaching than the hours those students spend inside their classrooms.

3. Is it difficult to recruit university students for the program?

We haven't seen difficulty at all. It's funny, because when we started this transformation process three years ago, many deans and people above us were worried – is this too specific a niche in the market? Will people be offended or not attracted? It's actually attracting incredible talent.

I also think this program has the potential to really attract students from our undergraduate pipeline who grew up in urban centers or environments. They can return to their communities to make that difference.

We currently have 175 students admitted, and we'd like to get up to a capacity of 350 or 400 in the next couple of semesters. It's a very complicated logistical matter to build up to that.

4. What kind of response from schools and communities have you had so far?

There's been an incredible response. Part of the reason for that is because we created this in partnership with them. We see each other as equal partners. It's not that we can magically save these communities, but we're working together to go after challenging issues.

5. How do you enjoy spending free time?

I spend it with my family – we have two incredible kids, an 8-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl, and they participate in a lot of sports. I see my job through their eyes: What kind of teachers would I want for my children? I can't expect any less for any child in Denver.

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