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DES MOINES, Iowa – Teachers in the Des Moines Public Schools system will soon be able to pursue a master’s degree for free from Drake University.

The Des Moines school board approved a contract with Drake University on Tuesday to develop a master’s program for the district’s teachers. The degree will be offered for free or at a reduced cost for all teachers, with the first group of 52 starting classes in January, according to the Des Moines Register.

The two-year program will cost Des Moines $150,000 in its first year, and grow to about $500,000 once the first class is through. It’s funded from the professional development section of the district’s budget, which sits at about $15 million total.

What determines if the degree is free or at a reduced price depends on the type of contract a teacher signs with the school district; upon their hiring, a teacher has the option to sign a regular teaching contract, or an “alternative” contract that requires the teacher to commit to at least eight years with the district. After a teacher’s first three years are complete under this alternative contract, they may begin the master’s program for free.

DMPS and Drake officials say this is aimed at increasing retention rates with teachers in the district. Teachers who were already hired by the district before this alternative contract was offered, or those who don’t sign an alternative contract, can opt-in for the master’s program, but must pay for the coursework themselves. Even then, the fees are at a reduced price.

The contract provisions half the classes to be taught by Drake professors and the other half by DMPS staff members. Classes will take place both on-campus at Drake and at district schools on nights and weekends.

As the program gets off the ground, Drake will record data on how students perform in classes taught by teachers who have completed the master’s program. Student data and teacher surveys will also be gathered to help design courses.

The idea for this DMPS-Drake partnership first came three years ago, when the district first offered the alternative contract to teachers. The first class in January will consist of those first 52 teachers who signed onto the alternative contract three years ago. Since the contract has been offered, DMPS officials say over 170 new teachers have signed onto it.

The curriculum in this master’s program will truly be unique, as well. Drake professor, Jill Johnson, says it makes sense to work together on the type of coursework offered to teachers, since DMPS staff know the needs and goals of the district best.

“We didn’t want to come in and say, ‘This is how you should be doing things,'” she said. “In a true partnership fashion, we’re working alongside the district, with information we have and information they have, to create the right courses for the teachers.”