Las Vegas Sun

April 17, 2014

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Clark County schools tap teaching corps

The Clark County School District is partnering with the national Teach for America program to draw new teaching talent into several dozen at-risk schools this fall.

The nonprofit teaching corps will provide 65 teachers in the district's most hard-to-place subject areas, including English as a second language, elementary bilingual education, special education, math and science.

The recruits represent a fraction of the 2,000-plus new teachers the school district will need for fall, but proponents say the Teach for America volunteers are specially trained and motivated to meet the needs of at-risk students struggling with socio-economic barriers.

"These teachers want to work with at-risk youth," Lina Gutierrez, executive director for licensed personnel, said, adding that not all teachers are interested in such a challenging working environment. "They (those in the program) want to be there, they have a commitment, a minimum two-year commitment, to work with those children."

The Teach for America program recruits students from the nation's top universities to serve as teachers for at least two years in the country's neediest school districts. The program draws volunteers from a variety of different majors who are interested in using their specialty for education.

This year the group is placing 1,750 recruits in 22 school districts nationwide.

Many of the Teach for America volunteers stay in education as teachers or administrators, and almost all become life-long advocates for improving opportunities in education, program directors said.

The Las Vegas recruits will undergo intensive training this summer in Los Angeles, including supervised teaching at an inner-city, at-risk school in Compton for five weeks, Chuck Salter, director of Teach for America Las Vegas, said.

When they return to Las Vegas in August, the Teach for America teachers will serve in some of the district's most impoverished schools, many with high immigrant populations.

Of the 65 teachers, about half will serve in local elementary schools teaching regular classes and English as a second language, Salter said. The rest will teach their specialties at the middle school and high school level, specifically math, science, English and special education.

What is typically a negative to many new teachers is an attraction for the Teach for America volunteers, who are drawn to the program by the chance to work in at-risk schools, volunteers said.

"I want to go where there is the greater need," said Patrick Phippen, a 25-year-old residence hall director for Iowa State University who is coming to Las Vegas to teach algebra at Valley High School. "Not that schools in the Midwest don't need good teachers, but the achievement gap is particularly strong in rural and urban areas.

"Every single student deserves quality, committed teachers, and I want to step in and see what we can do," said Phippen, who has a bachelor's degree in math and economics and did postgraduate work toward a doctorate in economics at Utah State University.

Jodi Iverson, a 22-year-old library worker at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said she was similarly attracted to Teach for America because it allowed her an alternative pathway to teach while meeting an important need.

"Teach for America is one of the most amazing opportunities," said Iverson, who will use her Spanish and sociology degrees teaching English as a second language at a Las Vegas elementary school. "You still get those skills of being a teacher but still providing service to the areas you teach at."

Administrators who are expecting the new teachers said the recruits looked "amazing" on paper and they were excited about the program's possibilities.

"The fact that I have a top-notch candidate who wants to be here is really a plus for this program," said Annette Conners-Harris, assistant principal for curriculum at Valley High School, located near Sahara and Eastern avenues.

Conners-Harris said she will be placing Phippen with a team of more veteran teachers who are working to help students get ready for college.

Other principals echoed Conners-Harris' thoughts on the program.

"It looks like it will be fabulous," said Judy Jordahl, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, near Nellis and Lake Mead boulevards. "The people who are going into education (through Teach for America) are really high quality people and they are going through some great training."

Jordahl's school is tentatively receiving one first grade teacher and one fourth grade teacher from the Teach for America program.

Like many of the principals, Jordahl said the quality of the recruits and their commitment to teach for two years was the biggest draw of the Teach for America program.

"They want to be teaching," Jordahl said. "We want people in education and teaching here because they want to see children learn. Not just that they love children, but that they love to see children learn."

Kenneth Fowler, principal of Duane D. Keller Middle School near Charleston and Hollywood boulevards, said he viewed the program as similar to the Peace Corps in that the Teach for America volunteers were coming to fill a need, not just to fill an open job position.

"They want to go into areas that need help and share their skills," said Fowler, whose middle school will be receiving three science teachers, two of them bilingual.

The recruits are hired and draw a salary from the Clark County School District as any other teacher, Gutierrez said, but Teach for America conducts and pays for the recruiting, training and continued professional development of the teachers throughout their two-year commitment.

As part of the partnership, the school district contributes $1,500 per teacher toward those costs.

The Las Vegas office of Teach for America must raise $625,000 in private money to cover the rest of the Las Vegas program's needs, Salter said. So far it has $125,000 committed, he said.

The group initially had a fund-raising goal of $1.4 million for the first year, but scaled back the number of recruits and is relying on help from the national Teach for America organization to get the program going in Las Vegas, Salter said.

The group is trying to raise an additional $1.4 million in private money by September 2005 to bring another 100 teachers to Las Vegas for the next school year.

So far the community response has been positive but getting commitments has been difficult, Salter said. Part of the problem, he said, is that fund-raising started after most local corporations and foundations had made their commitments for this year.

"If the money is not raised, we will go ahead with plans," he said. "But it will put a strain on national resources, and it will cast a cloud on our long-term efforts here in Las Vegas."