Skip to Main Content

Learning Partners, Urban Teachings


In the middle of a lesson about physical adaptations that enable camels to live in the desert, UNF intern Katina Hunter spotted fidgeting among the 16 Woodland Acres Elementary School third-graders seated before her.

“One, two, three, all eyes on me,” she said. The class repeated her words in unison. The room became quiet, and the students refocused their eyes on Hunter.

Halfway through a 15-week professional development internship, Hunter was acquiring the skills necessary to become an effective teacher at an urban school. Woodland Acres Elementary is part of the UNF/Duval County Urban Professional Development School Partnership [UPDSP], which recently gained national recognition for its efforts to improve education in urban schools.

“I enjoy teaching kids new things,” Hunter said after class. “I love the ‘ah-ha’ moments – when something finally clicks. I think UNF is a great college that has prepared me academically for a career in teaching.”

Ultimately, that’s what the UNF/Duval County Urban Professional Development Partnership is all about: students - elementary school, middle school and university students - learning together. Hunter’s class at Woodland Acres offers a glimpse of the partnership accomplishing its mission.

An elementary school of about 600 students in a working class neighborhood on Jacksonville’s Southside, Woodland Acres is one of four schools in the partnership. The others are West Jacksonville, Pine Estates and Lake Shore elementary schools. All of the schools have shown improvement in some academic area while with the program, which began in 1997. Woodland Acres and the other schools have a great deal in common.

Each Urban Professional Development School [UPDS] has several UNF education students serving in a variety of capacities. At Woodland Acres, for instance, anywhere from six to 10 UNF interns teach full-time in classrooms for a semester, which consists of 15 weeks. Sixty or more UNF students provide one-on-one tutoring services; from 10 to 15 students help Woodland Acres’ English as a Second Language or ESOL students; and others offer one-on-one literacy tutoring to Woodland Acres’ first graders.

Also, UNF faculty serve as professors in residence, teaching college classes at the Professional Development Schools. Some of the classes are university courses on teaching methods, which help UNF students interact with the elementary school students.


The purest partnership is one in which each participant benefits equally from mutual goals brokered and agreed upon from the outset of the partnership. Such is the case with the UNF/Duval County Urban Professional Development School Partnership.

To become part of the program, the Professional Development Schools completed extensive applications, which were reviewed by a committee made up of personnel from the College of Education and Human Services and the Duval County Public Schools. After reviewing interviews and observations at the schools, the committee made its decision. The final four schools were selected from a larger group of interested schools.

“The UPDS program is among the most outstanding work that we do in the College of Education and Human Services,” said Dr. Larry Daniel, dean of the college. “We have been recognized by both the Association of Teacher Educators and the National Association of Professional Development Schools for our work. Principals continue to tell us that the UPDS students are among the best teachers they hire. In short, we produce ‘rock star’ quality teachers who really know how to teach in urban environments.”

The additional attention received through the work of the professors in residence and the university students has helped improve student achievement at Professional Development Schools. West Jacksonville went from an “F” to an “A” school on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The partnership is also beneficial to UNF. A major goal of the partnership is to provide hands-on experiences in urban schools to develop teachers who have the knowledge, skills and attitude to be successful in those environments and want to remain in urban settings, according to Dr. Cathy O’Farrell, director of Education Field Experiences at the College of Education and Human Services.

The partnership seeks to reduce teacher turnover in urban schools by developing teachers who not only prefer to teach in urban school environments, but are trained to face the special challenges urban schools can entail. The partnership rates an A+ for teacher retention. At Woodland Acres, 12 of the school’s permanent teachers are former UNF Professional Development School interns. Eight of the 26 teachers at West Jacksonville, nearly one-third of the faculty, are also former UPDS interns from UNF.

“There are other professional development schools across the nation,” O’Farrell said. “This program is unique in that it is designed specifically for urban schools that can become emerging centers of excellence. Other components of the program that set it apart are the resident clinical faculty and professors in residence.” Resident clinical faculty supervise the interns and tutor students at the Professional Development Schools.

As part of O’Farrell’s responsibilities, she coordinates and monitors the Urban Professional Development Schools program. She is responsible for the selection and supervision of participating schools, resident clinical faculty and UNF students at those schools. She also participates in the selection of the professors in residence.
“UNF benefits by having the opportunity to actually place our students in urban settings that can not only provide them with exposure, but actual training to become a successful practitioner in an urban school,” O’Farrell said. “They are not just thrown into a challenging situation, but provided the tools and support necessary to be successful. I believe that it is a successful program. It has provided positive learning experiences and support for UNF students to become effective teachers in urban sites.”

O’Farrell said the definition of an urban school for UNF’s College of Education and Human Services is a school in Duval County with at least 70 percent of its students receiving free-and-reduced lunch benefits or is located in Jacksonville’s urban core.

What does Hunter think about teaching at Woodland Acres after she graduates this fall? “I would like to teach in an urban school. I think there is a need for teachers who want to be there,” she said. “I would stay and teach at Woodland Acres because I would get to work with excellent staff, teachers and incredible children.” David Shaffer, the teacher directing Hunter’s internship, is a 2005 UNF graduate.

Marianne Simon, Woodland Acres principal, would no doubt welcome Hunter back with open arms. Simon is an enthusiastic - and that might qualify as an understatement - proponent of the UNF/Duval County UPDS program.

“I am so very lucky and proud to be part of UNF’s Professional Development School program,” Simon said with emphasis. “The program has done nothing but add to the overall achievement of our school. Woodland Acres and UNF are great partners. We both benefit from the program in so many different ways. We have 12 teachers at our school who were previous interns at one of the UNF Professional Development Schools. All 12 of these teachers are outstanding, and I truly believe it is because of their experience as interns.”

Christie Stevenson is Woodland Acres’ resident clinical faculty member, a position jointly funded by UNF and the Duval County Public Schools. Stevenson, who has a master’s degree from UNF, perhaps provided the most fitting postscript to this story — one that bodes well for the future of the UNF/Duval County Urban Professional School Partnership:

“I think UNF is turning out fantastic teachers,” Stevenson said. “I strongly believe that the success of the partnership between the DCPS [Duval County Public Schools] and UNF in the Professional Development Schools provides such a strong foundation for our new teachers that long-term success is inevitable.”