The Teachers College of San Joaquin is not your average graduate school. It was founded by teachers for teachers, and grew out of a program designed for teacher development through internships. In May, it graduated its second class of 70 students.
The college is run by the San Joaquin County Office of Education. Classes meet at the county office and do most of their work on iPads.
It opened in 2009 as the first of its kind to be run by a county office in California. About 70 students pass through its halls each year, earning master's degrees and teaching credentials to become school administrators, special education teachers, or to simply improve their game in the classroom.
Catherine Kearny, chief academic officer, admits the school's motto was inspired by country music icon Dolly Parton: "Find out who you are and be it on purpose."
"What if schools were organized in such a way as to help kids find out who they are so they can be it on purpose?" said Kearny. "Our mission is to reform schools so that teachers can prepare kids for college and career."
Marie Burkin-Caffese of Stockton was among the graduates. She worked as a special education teacher at North Valley School in Lodi with emotionally disturbed children and has more than decade of work with that population under her belt.
"They're a funny bunch. So resilient; there are so many things they can teach you as an adult. I like working with that group," she said.
Burkin-Caffese grew up in Stockton and studied plant science and viticulture at California State University, Fresno, graduating in 1997. She needed another job after seasonal work monitoring vineyard workers in Sonoma County for Kendall-Jackson Wines came to an end. She answered an ad in the paper for work at a residential facility in Stockton without any prior knowledge of emotionally disturbed students.
A few years of working with those children was all it took to convince her to pursue it as a career. That's when she enrolled at Teachers College.
After earning her special education credentials, she took on the position at North Valley. Later, she also earned an administrative certificate. She finished her work in November of last year and walked in the spring ceremony. By May, Burkin-Caffese was hired by Lodi Unified School District as principal at Turner School.
The best part of the teachers college for her was that she could apply her work as a student to her job as a teacher.
"I'm a hands-on person. I would go to class at night, and the next morning implement what I learned to my class," she said. If a student wouldn't engage in a math lesson, Burkin-Caffese would avoid a reprimand or a punishment. Instead, she would try to engage with the student to see how they are doing that day, in that moment. It's about being flexible with kids when they need it, she said.
Her instructors used small class sizes to drive home the importance of relationships in the classroom. They were willing to meet, answer questions and knew the cohort by name.
"They model that to us, and expect us to model it to our students. That's what sets Teachers College grads apart," she said.
Burkin-Caffese will put her knowledge to work as the principal of Turner School for emotionally disturbed students. It's a new venture by the Lodi Unified School District to keep students in the district that would otherwise go to non-public schools.
"It's a great opportunity to help kids that are struggling with emotional issues in school," she said.
Kearny says her school is a grassroots effort to make schools better.
"They don't look at this as a master's degree. It's a movement," she said.
About half of the graduates get jobs within the first year.
Degrees offered include a master's in educational inquiry, a degree to deepen understanding of school reforms and multiple pathways education. They also offer educational leadership and school development along with administrative and special education credentials. Each program takes about 14 months. The cost is $385 per unit. Each student who enrolls with more than 20 units gets an iPad for the semester and can expect to spend about $30 in apps. Most of the textbooks are electronic, said Kearny.
Some teachers who enroll as a team from their school site can get tuition assistance in the form of an Intrepid Fellowship, a competitive grant by the school.
Kearny says the school attracts a student body looking for challenges.
"They want to come in and make a difference. Many are career changers, and ask to work at more difficult schools," she said. "We've staked our reputation on work going on when they leave here."
They track how graduates do once they re-enter the workforce, though they won't have their first year of data available until next year.
"If we're going to change schools, we have to change the workforce inside of schools," said Kearny. "We're more than a graduate school. It's about changing lives and making a profound difference to kids. It's in our hands and we can do it. We're not afraid of the work."