After raising four kids, caring for developmentally delayed adults and working for nearly two decades as a paraprofessional, Tamara Lofgren will soon begin a new career as a fourth-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary.
It’s a big professional transition for Lofgren (pictured), but one that was made easier because of a free program that helps any Polk County Public Schools employee prepare for the General Knowledge Test (GK), the four-part exam teachers must pass to become certified in Florida.
“The General Knowledge Test review sessions really helped me, especially with the math section. The teachers were all very knowledgeable,” said Lofgren. “By offering these sessions, it shows the school district wants to invest in its staff. They want to help their staff members achieve their goals.”
During the recently concluded legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7070, requiring that school districts provide teacher candidates with information on how to prepare for the GK, such as study guides and courses offered through state universities and colleges. (SB 7070 also restricts the requirement to pass the GK to only classroom teachers; provides teachers with three years, rather than one, to pass; and codifies recent changes by the Florida Department of Education to lower costs for test-takers.)
Since 2017, PCPS has already met the requirements by offering its own GK review classes, and for those in need of more intense help, the Rising Educators program at East Area Adult School.
“We could just hand them the study guide — that’s all that’s required of us,” said Lauri Christopher, who oversees the district’s Alternative Certification program.
“We hold our own classes, because teaching is really about relationships. During the classes, participants form relationships with each other and with the instructors; they feel supported. They have the chance to ask questions and receive face-to-face help. It’s a great way for the school district to model for new teachers what effective teaching looks like.”
Both the review sessions and Rising Educators are free to any school district employee seeking to become a certified teacher. Here’s how both options work:
- The General Knowledge Test is comprised of subtests in essay writing, English language skills, reading and mathematics. PCPS offers review sessions for each area. The essay, English language skills and reading sessions each take place over three class meetings; math takes place over seven class meetings. Sessions are offered throughout the year at the school district’s Jim Miles Professional Development Center, though math sessions are also offered at Kathleen High School and Ridgeview Global Studies Academy.
- Rising Educators was created to help for those who need more than a review to prepare for the GK. Intensive Math and Intensive Reading are available. Both courses consist of 12 classes taught over six weeks at East Area Adult School. Courses are available throughout the year.
The review sessions and Rising Educators are taught by school district educators with extensive experience in their respective subject areas. During a June essay review session, Rashawn Williams was at the head of the classroom, walking participants through introductions, supporting details and conclusions.
“Your essays should be like spirals. What I see in the introduction, should also be in the body and in the conclusion,” she told her students.
While her class worked on an assignment, Williams explained why she chose to spend part of her summer vacation helping aspiring educators get ready for the GK.
“I want to help them get into the field. We need highly qualified teachers in our district,” said Williams, who works as a mentor for first- and second-year teachers, and who previously taught writing for 11 years.
“I’m able to model for my students what they need to do on the exam and provide them feedback so they can adjust in the moment.”
Both the GK review sessions and Rising Educators are ultimately designed to help teachers get into the classroom and to help PCPS address an ongoing teacher shortage that is affecting districts nationwide. Data to gauge the effectiveness of PCPS’ GK review sessions and the Rising Educators program is hard to come by, in part because participants do not have to report to the district when they’ve attempted but not passed the test.
But there are promising signs the district’s efforts are working.
From 2015-2017, PCPS had one of the highest pass rates in the state on the essay writing subtest (81 percent of test-takers passed on their first attempt). The data looked specifically at participants in the district’s ACE Program, a voluntary certification program for non-education majors working as teachers. The GK essay review sessions the district began offering in 2017 are pulled directly from the ACE Program.
Christopher also conducts regular satisfaction surveys with participants. In one recent survey, 85 percent of respondents said the GK review sessions were “very helpful.” There also is ample anecdotal evidence that the review sessions are effective.
One satisfied participant is Valerie Kendrick, who teaches social studies at Crystal Lake Middle School. She took the GK prior to participating in any review sessions, just to get a feel for the test. That time around, she only passed the essay portion.
After taking the review sessions she passed all of the remaining areas — English language skills, reading and math.
“The classes were awesome, the instructors were all great. I was happy it was offered. If the classes weren’t available, I would probably still be trying to pass the test,” she said.
“I give a lot of applause to the school district for offering these classes, and I thank the school district; it shows they’re taking every avenue to help us.”
To sign up for General Knowledge review sessions, go to netConnect, accessible via thehub.polk-fl.net.