Las Vegas Sun

April 25, 2014

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Teaching talent may be on the way

Several of Clark County's most at-risk and low-income schools may receive an infusion of talented young teachers this fall to help bridge the gap in education caused by socio-economic differences.

The national nonprofit organization Teach For America plans to place 100 top graduates from the country's best universities in Clark County schools, if it can raise the $2.8 million needed to recruit, train and provide ongoing development for the Las Vegas area site over its first two years, founder and president Wendy Kopp said.

The school district is primarily interested in the program because it provides teachers trained in specific subjects, Associate Superintendent George Ann Rice said.

"They are recruiting subject-matter experts that have the heart to be a teacher and want to work at at-risk schools," Rice said.

Most of Teach For America's recruits did not major in education, but their expertise in areas such as English, math and science better qualify them to address some of the proficiency needs of the district's at-risk students, Rice said.

The school district is meeting with Teach For America officials this week to work out logistics, but Rice said the partnership all depends on whether the organization raises enough money.

The highly selective organization recruits intelligent, driven individuals who are concerned with the disparity between school test scores and socio-economic backgrounds, Kopp said. Recruits commit to teach for two years in a rural or low-income urban school, but many choose to stay longer.

"A great percentage of them decide that teaching is what they want to do, and that really interests us," Rice said.

Kopp said Teach For America, which is currently waiting to see if it will again gain status as a national AmeriCorps organization, was a "good match" for the needs of the Clark County School District.

"Our program has both a short-term and long-term power to it," Kopp said. "First off, we'll be providing excellent teachers who will be dedicated to providing students with the high quality education they deserve. Second, we'll be bringing a force of young leaders to the Las Vegas community who may not have otherwise come there."

Former Clark County Schools Superintendent Brian Cram said the Teach For America program was doing something practical to improve education while many others were discussing philosophical ways of improvement.

"It's an excellent program, a badly needed program, and in my mind a very efficient program," said Cram, who met with Kopp as director of the Greenspun Family Foundation. The Greenspun family owns the Las Vegas Sun.

Cram said he was impressed that 75 percent of program's expenses were for recruitment, training and further professional development. He said he hopes "businesses will see this as a very good program that can benefit the community and will choose to invest in it."

Teach For America's organizers said the recruitment of quality teachers is one of the byproducts of what they see as a larger social movement to eradicate economic inequality.

"We want to expose (our teachers) to the challenges that the (disadvantaged) students face and the schools face, and have them determine, based on their skills and interests, how they can work to improve the schools and the infrastructures supporting the schools," Ann Palladino, communications director, said.

About 63 percent of the organization's alumni choose to continue teaching, and many choose to continue teaching in the schools where they were first assigned, Palladino said. About 20 percent take on administrative roles in school districts to help address the problems facing low-income students. Still others go on to address policy issues or to work in nonprofits that address other needs in the community that affect how students learn.

"They are idealists," Kopp said of her teachers. "We think of them as pragmatic idealists. They are people who want to change the way things are and work within the system to change it.

"They believe education is fundamental for students to have the opportunities that they deserve," Kopp continued. "And they are outraged, as we all should be as a country, that education varies so widely depending on socio-economic differences."

Kopp originally referred to the program as the Peace Corps of the 1990s when she started it fresh out of Princeton University in 1989. Within a year, Kopp had placed the first 500 recruits in six different schools districts and raised $2.5 million in seed money to make it happen. By fall 2004, the organization will place more than 3,000 teachers in 21 communities. If Kopp can raise the necessary money for Clark County, the Las Vegas Valley would be the 22nd community in which the program will be operating, Kopp said.

Recruits will be formally hired by Clark County School District at the normal starting wage and must meet all of the district's criteria, Rice said. Their actual recruitment, training and further development is provided through Teach For America.

Recruits go through an intensive summer training program prior to starting work and then are enrolled in special nighttime or weekend classes to pursue a modified form of teaching credentials. Recruits must also meet any competency requirements mandated by the school district.

Once hired, recruits are placed in schools with other recruits to provide both support and encouragement for one another, Kopp said.

Teach For America teachers bypass the normal credential process but still meet the No Child Left Behind Act requirements for schools to have highly qualified teachers in all classrooms, Palladino said.

In fact, according to a June 2003 study by an independent research firm, nearly three out of four principals said Teach For America teachers were better than other beginning teachers and two-thirds of principals said their training was also better. A Houston, Texas, school district study that compared Teach For America teachers with regular teachers also found the Teach For America teachers consistently performed the best and had the highest impact on student performances.

That's not to say Teach For America teachers are better than other teachers, Kopp said, but they are a significant resource for infusing school districts with innovative, talented and problem-solving individuals.

"I think that we are attracting people who want to be teaching in low-income communities and are very passionate about the idea of ensuring that all kids have the opportunities that they deserve." Kopp said. "This is not a last resort for them that they couldn't get the job they wanted in a more privileged area."

Kopp said they have found Teach For America teachers learn tremendously from the more experienced teachers at their schools but also inspire those teachers to remember why they originally started teaching.

"During the time they commit to this, during that two years, this is their life, 24/7," Kopp said.