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

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.