career change

City's top TFA official says he's resigning to return to teaching

TFA New York Executive Director Jeff Li, who is leaving TFA to return to the classroom

New York’s Teach for America executive director has taken the term “lead by example” very literally.

Jeff Li announced last week that he is resigning from his top post at Teach For America after less than two years on the job and returning to the classroom as a teacher. The announcement comes just days before his organization is set to announce a campaign meant to encourage alumni to stay in the teaching profession, rather than leave for other professions.

“A funny thing happened along the way as our team thought through this campaign,” Li wrote in an email to TFA alumni teachers on Thursday. “As I personally thought more about teaching beyond two years, and all that can be accomplished by doing so, I became truly re-inspired myself.”

The program that TFA is launching is called “Teach Beyond 2,” a not-so-subtle reminder for its alumni that even though their TFA commitment is technically only two years long, they should consider teaching to be a longer-term pursuit.

More than 40 percent of all TFA corps members in New York City stop teaching once their two-year requirement is fulfilled — a number that is consistent with nationwide TFA studies and only slightly higher than the 50 percent three-year departure rate for all teachers in urban schools. TFA’s critics say the high attrition shows that teaching is merely a resume-builder for some young college graduates before they move onto graduate school programs or higher-paying jobs.

Li’s career path has actually gone in the opposite direction. At 27, he was a highly paid consultant on track to making partner when he decided to enter teaching through TFA in 2003. In 2008, Li won the U.S. Department of Education’s American Star of Teaching award for the achievement gains his students made. He taught math for six years at P.S. 69 in the South Bronx and KIPP AMP, where he was principal when teachers voted to unionize. (A year later, the teachers voted to leave the union again.)

Returning to teaching entails a pay cut, but Li said he has never put compensation first. “I strive not to make too many decisions based on that,” he said.

Instead, he said a love of teaching compelled him back into the classroom.

“I think it was over the last several weeks where it became a real decision for me,” Li said. “This is where my heart is and I just think it’s hugely important work and felt personally fulfilled by the work.”

Li said he didn’t have a new job lined up for the 2012-2013 school year. But finding one shouldn’t be hard, according to his old boss.

“Jeff is one of the more remarkable teachers that I’ve ever met,” said David Levin, co-founder and superintendent of KIPP. “To have him return to the classroom is not only great for his students and their families, but for all the other teachers who will get to learn from him.”

A copy of the email he sent to TFA New York alumni is below.

Hello Alumni Teachers,

I am excited to write to you today about an exciting campaign that we are launching, called “Teach Beyond Two,” to inspire and empower our corps members to consider teaching beyond their two-year commitment, as well as celebrate and acknowledge the impact of each of you – our alumni teachers.

Our first event will be held on Tuesday, February 14th at 6:00pm at Barnes and Noble (86th and Lexington) to hear the story of one 1990 alumna, Denise Janssen, who has been in the classroom for the past two decades.  Regardless of the length of your time in the classroom, Denise’s story is simply worth hearing.  For more information and to register for this event, CLICK HERE.

We at Teach For America talk a lot about the second part of our theory of change – our alumni movement – and often highlight the incredible things our alumni do both within the education sector and beyond, whether that is being a principal, a policy leader, an elected official, a legal advocate for children, or so many other roles. And each of those roles is vitally important to us reaching our collective vision of educational equity for every child in this country.  But we also want to make sure that we always take time to value the “teach” in Teach For America – and realize that at our core, the one thing that binds all Teach For America alumni is the experience of teaching.  And that those who choose to teach beyond their two-year commitments – as I and so many other alumni have done – continue to have an incredible impact within our movement.

So this year, for the first time in the New York region’s history, we are going to launch a campaign that hopes to capture this spirit.  Called “Teach Beyond Two,” we will pilot a series of opportunities that will highlight the value of our alumni who stay in the classroom, as well as inspire and empower our corps members to consider teaching beyond the two-year commitment.  This is not to say that we do not value other paths besides teaching – and of course each of our corps members will decide for themselves what paths they will eventually take – but we also want to make the powerful statement that we absolutely do value those who choose to teach, and that we think it’s an incredibly important one for our collective movement.

A funny thing happened along the way as our team thought through this campaign.  As I personally thought more about teaching beyond two years, and all that can be accomplished by doing so, I became truly re-inspired myself.  I thought back to my 6 years in the classroom, and just felt like though I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent as Executive Director, there was so much more for me to do in the classroom.  There was so much more learning to be done, so many more kids and families to get to know, more lessons to write, more copies to make, more papers to grade, more bathroom breaks to run, more hooks to create, and ultimately, more moments of pure joy to be had on the way toward kids truly changing the trajectory of their lives.

And so I have recently made a personal decision – I will be returning to the classroom this fall, to be a teacher again, to continue teaching beyond two.  I could not be more excited and humbled to teach alongside each one of you in the fall.

I hope you join us for this event on February 14th, and other upcoming events that we’ll be piloting.

Thanks for all you do with our kids every day.

Happy teaching.

Jeff

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.