Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
August 29, 2007
Rockford — Carla Pfalzgraf-Vedro is a wife and mother of two young daughters with a background in industrial quality control.
Marilyn Larsen, a grandmother whose sons are grown, managed the overnight crew at a McDonald’s restaurant. Tammy Alexander, whose children are 10 and 13, worked in retail management and jewelry sales.
The three are among 14 students from the Rock River Valley who are earning bachelor’s degrees in education through Northern Illinois University’s partnership with Rock Valley College.
And they’re about to enter the classroom.
Members of the group will complete the 16-week, student-teaching component of their education this fall before graduation from NIU in December. It’s the second cohort to move through the RVC-NIU partnership; the first graduated in the fall of 2005.
For these students, the commencement ceremony at NIU’s Convocation Center will represent their first and only trip to DeKalb. The hometown-only classes at affordable public university prices are truly what allowed many of them to enroll.
“Balancing a full-time job, family and trying to get a degree? This program has made it possible,” said Mary Keil, academic adviser for elementary education in NIU’s Department of Teaching and Learning. “We’re offering higher education to people who wouldn’t have been able to have it otherwise. They’re grateful to NIU, and our professors have really loved working with them.”
“What’s been so great about it is that it’s a very doable program. You can keep a job and raise a family,” Pfalzgraf-Vedro said.
“At first, I thought it was just too good to be true, and there must be some catch to it, that I could do all of my coursework here in Rockford at a public university. The quality of the faculty they have provided us with has been second to none.”
The students began their three-year trek in January 2005, meeting together every Monday and Wednesday night for three hours, summers included.
Many already had some sort of education job in their past, but one was a school bus driver. Another was an interpreter for persons with hearing impairments. Another was retired from a military career.
About 16 different professors from the NIU College of Education commuted to NIU-Rockford to teach, Keil said. Neither online learning nor closed-circuit TV was used, she said; rather, the 61 hours of upper-level courses were packed with classroom discussions, projects, presentations and other hands-on activities.
Now their education takes a real-world turn.
“For some of them, it’s a dream they’ve had that they didn’t think they’d ever be able to achieve. It’s so nice to see that coming about,” Keil said. “They know this is what they were meant to do, and they’re so excited. They’re definitely more excited than the typical student-teacher.”
“NIU appreciates the high level of support and collaboration we have had with Rock Valley College,” said Anne Kaplan, vice president of University Administration and Outreach at NIU. “Without RVC’s strong advocacy, such a partnership would not have been possible, and Rockford wouldn’t have these 14 new teachers joining those 21 who graduated in 2005.”
Pfalzgraf-Vedro will spend her semester at the Rockford Environmental Science Academy, where she will teach science and math to seventh-graders.
Two years ago, she enjoyed three weeks at RESA as part of the cohort: The middle school is involved in Project REAL, NIU’s federally funded partnership with the Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College to enhance teacher quality.
Now she’s looking forward to “learning from my teachers what it takes to become a veteran teacher, learning techniques to reach as many students as I can – hopefully all of them – and feeling what it’s like to really manage a classroom by myself.”
“I can’t wait. It’s been a lifelong pursuit for me that started when I was 5, with my mother taking me down to Sinnissippi and teaching me about the difference between an annual and a perennial and about different kinds of birds,” Pfalzgraf-Vedro said.
“I always loved the prospect of teaching, but I never wanted to commute and never wanted to pay the price of a private college,” she added. “I started working in the Rockford Public Schools in 2001 as a para-professional. I dipped my toes in and tested the waters. I really enjoyed the work, and I enjoyed working with the students. When this cohort came up, I said, ‘OK.’ ”
Alexander, who lives in Machesney Park, will teach kindergarten in Poplar Grove.
Early childhood is an age level Alexander loves and one she’s familiar with: She’s spent several years as a para-professional with the Harlem School District’s preschool program, working with children ages 3 to 5.
“There are a lot of changes going on in kindergarten,” Alexander says. “They’re learning a lot of things they need in the future: letters, numbers, colors, how to read small words, how to read altogether. When I was in kindergarten, we learned our letters, and in first grade, we learned how to read.”
Descended from a family of educators, teaching has been her dream for years.
She also made a promise to herself to earn a bachelor’s degree by her 40th birthday, a goal she will meet with three months to spare.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since I was 14. It just took me 26 years to get there,” she laughs. “I joined the Future Teachers of America club in high school and realized that this was what I wanted to do. In every job since then, I’ve always enjoyed the teaching part.”
Like the others, Alexander appreciated the cohort’s flexibility.
“I could actually still work my full-time job, and get the experience there, and also go to school and raise my family,” she says. Otherwise, “I would have had to spend more money, and probably more time. It would’ve taken a long time.”
For Larsen, who lives in Winnebago, the schedule meant everything.
“I had started back at Rock Valley, working overnight and going to school during the day. I couldn’t keep it up,” says Larsen, a non-traditional student in her 50s. “It kept me going that NIU was just two nights a week.”
Larsen’s family played a major role as well.
Her husband “literally did all the cooking and cleaning” at home. One of her sons, an English teacher, helped her with her term papers; he and another of her three sons occasionally opened their homes for Larson to take a quick shower before class.
“Everyone has been behind me,” she says. “I hope I can get 100 tickets to graduation.”
Larsen is scheduled to student-teach in a fourth-grade classroom at Machesney Elementary School. The former teacher’s aide and longtime Sunday School teacher enjoys “a real good rapport” with children that age.
“The kids are at an age level in reading where they can start discussing the story with you because they can comprehend it,” she says. “I really enjoy the reward of seeing them grasp ideas, understanding something they didn’t think they could.”
Meanwhile, she finds herself eager for more education and excited for the start of her new career.
“I really enjoyed the classes enough that I would like to keep taking classes,” Larsen says. “I want to get my own classroom and build things. My cooperating teacher has got such a fantastic room – so organized – and has developed her lesson plans over the years. I see that happening for myself, and then refining those things to where I can be one of the great teachers.”
For more information, visit http://www.niu.edu/offcampusacademics/ccp/rvc.shtml.