I really liked the way it was structure-based on the Core Standards. If I’m looking at a place where my students have been weak, I can select a module in that area so I can get a better foundation to reinforce my own teaching. —Cathe Runyan

GROUSE CREEK, Box Elder County — For Cathe Runyan, one of two teachers at the Grouse Creek School in Utah's northwest corner, attending teacher training classes can be difficult.

When Box Elder School District recently hosted an endorsement program for elementary math teachers, she wanted to participate but deemed the burden to be too unreasonable.

"In order for me to do it I would have to drive to Brigham City every Thursday evening," she said. "It’s 165 miles each way and there’s no way I could go. I’d have to take a half day off school."

Runyan teaches kindergarten through fifth grade at the Grouse Creek School, a two-room building that serves students up to their junior year in high school. The school's low enrollment — currently nine students — makes for small class sizes, but also requires Runyan to teach several grades simultaneously, including the various grade-level benchmarks established by state officials.

Thanks to a new online training program offered by Utah State University, Runyan was able to complete more than 200 hours of professional development last year on subjects specifically selected to meet the needs of her students.

"I really liked the way it was structure-based on the Core Standards," Runyan said of Utah State's program. "If I’m looking at a place where my students have been weak, I can select a module in that area so I can get a better foundation to reinforce my own teaching."

USU's Elementary Mathematics Teachers Academy officially launched this month after serving a group of pilot students last semester, said Jennifer Boyer-Thurgood, a Utah State University instructor involved in the academy's development.

She said with the classroom changes associated with the new Common Core State Standards, a series of national education benchmarks adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C., developers saw a need to provide accessible professional development to educators.

Utah teachers need to be recertified every five years, she said, and many small and rural school districts do not have the resources to provide regular training.

"There’s also a population of people who hold teaching licenses and keep those licenses current but aren’t currently teaching," Boyer-Thurgood said. "They’re not provided any professional development and they have to maintain the same number of licensure credits."

Professional development is frequently listed as a key contributor to effective classroom teaching by the State School Board. State funding for teacher training was reduced in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession and since then has been commonly listed as a legislative priority by state education officials.

In October, the Utah Foundation listed professional development among the best practices that contribute to student success in a report presented to lawmakers.

The teachers academy currently consists of 100 modules targeting specific standards within the Common Core. Each module consists of between 13 and 15 hours of professional development, Boyer-Thurgood said, and includes assigned readings, video tutorials, application assignments and evaluations.

The modules are taken in sets of three, with a set costing roughly $350 and earning the participant a credit hour of master's course credit from Utah State University.

"It’s really, financially, a great deal because for the one credit hour, they get about 45 hours of professional development," Boyer-Thurgood said. "If a school district tried to pay for that much professional developement for a group of teachers, it would be in the thousands of dollars."

Runyan completed 15 modules and said she was impressed by the amount of information presented through readings, videos and hands-on activity plans. In particular, she said the information was well-curated, saving her the time of looking for the latest information on the six different grades she teaches.

"Every article I read was really helpful," she said. "I like to try to stay on top of things, but it’s a lot of work with all the levels I’m teaching to go and sift through all the professional journals."

Boyer-Thurgood said part of what makes USU's teacher academy unique is that it carries official university credit. Unlike other Internet-based trainings, like massive open online courses or MOOCs, there is not always the guarantee that participation will be recognized by academic institutions or state licensing requirements.

"We wanted the quality that comes with actually being certified and approved by a university," Boyer-Thurgood said. "With the University comes extra relicensure credits, so if you do you’re professional development work through a university you have to do less of it to satisfy state requirements."

The online format also broadens the potential reach of the academy, she said, as national mathematics standards make the academy's training modules applicable to remote corners of Utah and beyond state lines.

"We’re all talking about the same mathematics and the same reading standards for all children," she said. "So the professional development that we developed for teachers here in Utah initially can now be a resource for teachers all over the country."

Runyan said that it's not just teachers in rural areas that struggle to find time for teacher training. She said there's plenty of teachers along the Wasatch Front that may not be able to leave their families and participate in a class.

"This online (program) gives me the options to not have to put in that travel time and to be able to do it from where I am," she said. "You can do it anywhere, and that’s really the benefit."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood