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.

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.