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.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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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.