Teacher preparation

Teach for America to reduce its classroom placements in Memphis

PHOTO: TFA
Teach For America places teachers in low-income districts across the country.

Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that places college graduates into some of the nation’s most troubled schools, plans to reduce its incoming teaching force in Memphis by about 40 percent this fall, a regional leader has confirmed.

The organization is projecting placements of 110 new recruits in Memphis-area schools during the 2015-16 school year, down from 185 last year.

The decline is consistent with national trends. As the economy recovers, TFA officials are seeing a decline in applicants from college seniors who are being offered more attractive jobs upon graduation.

“This is great news for the broader economic perspective but it’s not so great from the education impact perspective,” said regional TFA executive director Athena Turner, noting that other teacher training programs across the nation are experiencing similar dips.

The change should align with an anticipated decrease in student enrollment next year, said Sheila Redick, director of human capital for Shelby County Schools, which employs more than 8,000 traditional full-time teachers.

Founded in 1990, TFA recruits bright young graduates, provides them seven weeks of teacher training, and places them in low-performing and hard-to-staff urban schools – a strategy that’s had mixed results.

The organization brought its first 50 corps members to Memphis in 2006. Today, more than 340 members work in schools in Memphis. Approximately 280 alumni have stayed in Memphis after completing their two-year program. About 20 percent of TFA corps members are from Memphis.

TFA’s presence has not been without controversy. While school administrators in Memphis have struggled to find and keep qualified math and science teachers to work in some of its lowest-performing middle and high schools, local hiring of young, mostly white TFA members coincided with layoffs of many older black teachers amid significant budget cuts.

Local teachers’ union officials have maintained that TFA recruits aren’t qualified and equipped to teach students in low-income environments.

The district is required to pay TFA a $5,000 annual fee per recruit, most of which comes from a $90 million grant awarded to the district in 2009 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That money – designated for programs that improve teacher effectiveness in Memphis schools – soon will run out.

Of the 110 new TFA recruits projected for this fall, 60 would work in Shelby County Schools under a contract reviewed Tuesday night by the district’s school board. Last year, TFA placed 80 recruits in district schools and, at its peak, 200 recruits.

The remaining 50 new recruits would work next year in charter and state-run Achievement School District schools in Memphis.

If the projections play out, TFA would have a total of 300 corps members working in Memphis for their first or second year in the city.

The Shelby County School Board is expected to vote Feb. 24 on the TFA contract. Board members noted Tuesday night that funding TFA members takes resources away from training the district’s own full-time teachers. “When the grant is gone, it’s going to be a different analysis,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said.

Since its inception, Teach for America has been part of the national education conversation amid rapid changes.

“Over the last five years in Memphis, … education reform has gained a ton of momentum and attraction,” Turner said. “TFA is a big part of that. All of that has created a world where we’re much more focused on where our great teachers are, what are they doing, and how do we replicate that.”

A 2014 report by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed that teachers who came through Memphis’ TFA program outperformed teachers from some traditional programs and were more effective than other beginning teachers in a range of subjects including math and biology – but fell short in preparing their students for fourth- and eighth-grade math exams.

Over the years, TFA has developed many young adult leaders and brought new energy into the communities where it operates, Turner said.

In Memphis, more than 92 percent of TFA corps members stay for their second year, and more than 60 percent of the organization’s graduates end up staying in the city and working in education in some capacity. By comparison, fewer than 82 percent of traditional first-year teachers stay after their first year.

“We’ve attracted a ton of folks to the profession who would’ve not otherwise joined,” Turner said.

Jon Alfuth, a 2011 TFA corps member who now works at The Soulsville Charter School and frequently blogs on education policies, said he was in graduate school when he became inspired by the organization’s public service mission. He’d always had an interest in teaching.

“I think I was looking for an opportunity … to act on my desire to give public service to kids who were deserving and needed quality teachers and that was definitely the opportunity that I was given,” said Alfuth, who taught math through TFA at Hamilton High School in Memphis.  

Alfuth said TFA recruits struggle with the same challenges as graduates with teaching degrees – for instance, a lack of training and classroom support. “TFA gets a lot of blame for this, but a lot of teachers are leaving by year five,” Alfuth said.

Turner is designing TFA’s regional five-year plan aimed toward greater diversity and teacher retention and possibly starting a five-year fellowship in which graduates receive a degree upon completion.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at [email protected] or 901-260-3705.

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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.