Future of Schools

As Teach For America marks 10 years in Memphis, contract with Shelby County Schools faces scrutiny under tight budget

PHOTO: Laura Kebede
Emily Abeles, a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School in Memphis, teaches one of her small groups. Abeles is an alumna of the city's first Teach For America cohort.

Emily Abeles says she probably wouldn’t have gotten into teaching had she not signed up with Teach For America as part of the organization’s first cohort in Memphis in 2006.

A Knoxville native, she’s stayed in Memphis ever since and works today as a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School, operated by the state-run Achievement School District in the Frayser community.

Marking its 10th year in Memphis, Teach For America is one of a handful of alternative teacher training programs that help feed the pipeline of educators into schools operated by Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District and charter schools authorized by the local district.

The nonprofit organization, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, has 293 recruits working in Memphis this school year, compared with 48 its first year. And the training has evolved to meet the needs of the city’s challenging teaching environment.

“We focused on mostly academic goals at first,” Abeles said of the first cohort’s efforts. “Now I’m seeing first years with much larger and more ambitious visions for their students. They’re thinking more holistically with their students.”

The number of Memphis recruits is down from the organization’s peak of 340 in 2014, a decrease that leaders attribute to the economy’s recovery and college students finding more lucrative job offers upon graduation.

The recruiting organization expects about 260 new teachers next school year, about half of whom will teach in Shelby County Schools if the school board votes Tuesday night to approve a contract to pay the organization up to $650,000, or $5,000 for each teacher placed.

Since 2009, the cost was covered by the $90 million grant awarded to the local Memphis district from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for teacher effectiveness initiatives. This year, as the grant money dries up and the district faces an estimated shortfall of more than $70 million, its funding is less certain.

With the Gates money, “it was easy because that money was earmarked” for teacher effectiveness efforts, said school board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, adding that TFA recruits provide a “great value” and fill hard-to-staff positions. But facing a budget deficit, “we’re approving something without knowing what we’ll have to give up to have it,” she said.

Board member Stephanie Love notes that the school district is struggling to care for its own hires and create a balanced budget. “We have a (staff) shortage, that’s true,” Love said. “I just really think we should lift our morale in house and we may not have to worry about contracting with an organization to bring in more teachers as we are now.”

Teach For America has long faced criticism for fast-tracking young idealists into the classroom, giving them a summer of intensive preparation rather than the years of coursework that teachers who graduate from education schools typically take.

But traditional teacher colleges have not supplied the number of educators that districts like Shelby County Schools need, while alternative programs have become more mainstream nationally to feed districts that serve high-need students.

In Memphis, TFA’s track record includes a number of high-profile alumni.

Of the original 48-member cohort, 10 TFA recruits still work in the city, including Tim Ware, executive director of ASD-operated Achievement Schools, and Athena Turner, who now oversees TFA in Memphis. In addition, Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools and a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet, was the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis.

“There’s an undying desire to make Memphis the absolute best place to live in the world,” Ware said of why he stayed. “There’s a lot of energy that I love to be a part of.”

Ware was one of only three black teachers in the inaugural cohort and the only one who was not straight out of college. Since then, the organization has sought to attract recruits that are more diverse in ethnicity and background, as well as provide more training on understanding the culture of its students.

Ware cites the professional development he received through TFA for putting him on the fast track to a leadership role. “The non-stop training and development TFA provided me, it really sharpened my sword and really quickened my pace more than I’ve seen in other contexts,” he said.

Turner says the percentage of recruits continuing to teach in Memphis after their two-year commitment has steadily grown. About 64 percent of teachers from the 2013 cohort stayed on for this year, she said.

 

Across Tennessee, about 9 percent of teachers trained in Tennessee last year came from alternative programs similar to TFA.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.