lower hires

City’s incoming Teach for America class hits five-year low

The share of new teachers stepping out of Teach for America training and into New York City classrooms is continuing to shrink.

The organization, which places new teachers in hard-to-staff public schools, said Tuesday that it will send 230 teachers into city schools this fall. That’s down from 400 teachers last year and the lowest number since 2010, a decline that reflects the recruiting difficulties Teach for America has faced this year as the job market for college graduates has improved and criticism of the organization’s preparation has persisted.

“We are certainly feeling it,” TFA New York director Charissa Fernandez said of the national recruitment challenge, adding that the group is also shrinking to allow TFA to improve the support it offers to city teachers. “Our partner schools are feeling it.”

In other parts of the country, other job prospects from the improved economy has led to teacher shortages, a trend detailed by the New York Times this week. In New York City, the latest recruitment numbers for Teach for America come as the organization continues to reorient itself, putting a new focus on encouraging teachers to stay in the classroom beyond their initial two-year commitments and recruiting more people of color into its ranks.

All told, the city will have about 5,500 new hires this fall, 100 of which will come from TFA, according to education department spokesman Jason Fink. NYC Teaching Fellows, another alternative certification program, will account for roughly 1,000. (Another 20 incoming TFA teachers will work in community-based organizations as part of the city’s expansion of pre-kindergarten, and an estimated 100 more will teach at charter schools.)

TFA has placed teachers in New York City schools for 25 years and is now the country’s top supplier of public school teachers. Over that time, the organization grew in prominence by attracting top college graduates to work in education with a clear formula: An intensive summer training program, followed by a teaching position in a high-poverty school and a two-year commitment. As recently as 2008, TFA was placing more than 500 teachers in New York City schools at a time, though the size of its presence has fluctuated.

Applications to Teach for America have declined in the past two years after a 15-year growth streak. Still, 44,000 people applied for the 4,100 open slots nationwide this year, which a spokeswoman noted was twice as many applications as they received in 2007.

Its growth has also fueled intense criticism. TFA corps members are more likely than teachers who come through other programs to stop teaching after two years, and detractors say that the organization doesn’t do enough to reduce the steady churn in schools that rely on TFA teachers. Meanwhile, independent research has found that TFA teachers are equal to, or do slightly better than, their non-TFA counterparts in boosting student learning.

“I don’t know if it’s an outright rejection of the TFA model, but I’ve certainly noticed an uptick in former TFA-ers who are speaking out about it,” said Joshua Starr, former superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and the current CEO of PDK International, a professional association for educators. “The reputation might be a little bit more tarnished than it has been in the past.”

Responding to that criticism has been a focus of TFA’s new leaders, who have begun new initiatives to improve training and increase teacher retention and diversity.

Two-thirds of TFA’s incoming New York City teachers identify as people of color, up from 60 percent last year, making this year’s group the most diverse in the organization’s history. That’s also more diverse than the city’s overall teaching force, which is about 58 percent white, while 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Having a smaller group of incoming teachers will allow TFA New York to focus on supporting alumni and improving the experience teachers have in their first two years, encouraging more of them to stay in the classroom, Fernandez said.

“Once we have rolled some of those changes out, we want to grow again,” Fernandez said.

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.