Sara Spavin has known since second grade that she wanted to be a teacher.

But it wasn't until she entered a new Winona State University-Rochester teacher training program that Spavin experienced the gulf that separates the theory of teaching from the practice. Flesh-and-blood children are not nearly as predictable as theoretical abstracts, and soon, Spavin was grappling with the challenges of today's classroom: What do you do when students don't do their homework? When they don't want to learn? When students come to school hungry?

Nearly all teachers-in-training go through that jarring transition at some point. What made Spavin's experience so unique was how early she was getting those rubber-meet-the-road moments. Most student educators get the bulk of those experiences at the student-teacher phase near the end of their training, but Spavin was writing lesson plans and teaching at the start.

"Within your first two weeks, you're already up with the fifth-graders doing a whole lesson," Spavin said. "Right off the bat, you have a pretty good idea what it's going to take (to be a teacher)."

Spavin is in the vanguard of a new way of preparing teachers in Rochester. Only two years old, the WSU-Rochester program is being scrutinized closely by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. The board has granted this one-of-a-kind program "experimental status," allowing it to break the traditional teacher education mold.

The most striking aspect of WSU-Rochester's elementary teacher ed program is the variety and frequency of its "field experiences." By the end of the first year of their two-year training, WSU students will have had at least 120 hours of field experiences, double what many other teacher training programs provide.

"We really want them immersed in a school environment as early as possible," said Nancy Eckerson, chairwoman of WSU-Rochester's education program and one of the program's designers. "And in addition to being able to get the field experiences, they also get to see just how being in a school works."

But the differences are not only in how education students are prepared but where. WSU-Rochester students take their classes in teaching theory and methodology not on a college campus but at Riverside Central Elementary School. That proximity to elementary classrooms allows WSU students to practice what they've learned almost immediately.

It also immerses them in the culture and rhythms of an elementary school. WSU students can observe how Riverside Central teachers do their jobs. They can seek advice from them. When the school held a tornado drill last year, WSU's college students had to get on their "hands and knees and tucked in" just like the kindergartners.

"I think it's a huge difference," said Gina Aleman, WSU-Rochester junior. "You get a feel of what it's like to be in a school, see what the classrooms are like, see all the different grades."

The redesign also arose from a concern that WSU-Rochester's teacher-training program was producing teachers who were unprepared to handle Rochester schools' more racially mixed classrooms. By planting the program at Riverside, one of Rochester's most diverse schools, they were giving education students the experiences many said were lacking.

"Our schools are becoming increasingly diverse, and our students were reporting to us that they did not feel prepared to work with those students in the classroom," Eckerson said.