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July 22, 2014

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Time To Make A Difference

Las Vegas Valley Corps

Total corps members: 126

Average GPA: 3.5

Average SAT: 1307 (out of 1600)

Held leadership roles on campus: 96%

People of color: 28%

Alumni of 2004 corps who continue teaching in Clark County: 70 percent

SOURCE: Teach For America

The young teacher out of the Midwest is a big hit at Woolley Elementary School.

He's funny, his students say. He listens. He gives instructions slowly.

And, says fifth grader Chris Griffin, "He never yells at us."

They're talking about 24-year-old Anthony Nunez, who went to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, to become a sociologist. He scuttled those plans after recruiters saw he had the makings to excel as a classroom teacher, and picked him for an innovative and highly competitive program targeting college graduates.

Give us two years of your life, their spiel went, and become the best possible teacher you can in a hard-luck school where students are struggling to get ahead. Show your stuff. Make a difference.

Nunez was hooked, and today at Woolley he listens to his students, is funny and doesn't yell. He's completed his two-year teaching commitment and now could be thinking about what he'll do next in his life.

But he decided to stay as a Clark County teacher.

"I realized I could take my degree and do research and write about problems, or I could actually do something to help," Nunez said. "I didn't want to just be someone who criticized."

He enlisted in Teach for America, a program that has unleashed legions of bright young teachers across the country, because "it really spoke to me for its hands-on opportunities."

His decision was not too unlike an altruistic college grad signing up for a couple of years in a developing country on behalf of the Peace Corps.

Nunez's challenge: two years in the Clark County School District.

For a host of reasons, Clark County has difficulty recruiting teachers. But because of its participation in Teach for America, it has nabbed some of the smartest young educators in the country, and their efforts here are paying off dramatically.

These motivated neophytes, unconstrained by convention, have been dispatched to 25 of the neediest school districts in the country. Since 2004, Clark County has been getting them in growing numbers. This year, 126 corps members are assigned to 39 schools.

Students under their tutelage - some of the most challenged in the valley - are advancing at a rate that would make schools in country club neighborhoods proud. Moreover, the teachers working here are doing better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, according to Teach for America officials.

George Ann Rice, associate superintendent of human resources for the School District, said principals regularly refer to their Teach for America staff as "the creme de la creme."

Last year, the teachers assigned to Clark County generated the largest gains in student academic growth of any Teach for America corps in the nation. Of six educators in Clark County named "New Teachers of the Year" - nominated by their principals from a field of nearly 3,000 candidates - three were Teach for America corps members.

"We have dedication and passion - those are the qualities Teach for America looks for when it recruits," said Erin Lynch, the district's middle school teacher of the year. "It nurtures those qualities and gives us the tools we need to be successful in the classroom."

In the 2004-05 academic year - the first year the young teachers came to work in Clark County - 43 percent of the students assigned to Teach for America instructors advanced more than 1 1/2 years in academic growth. In the second year, that percentage climbed to 63 percent.

And in both the first and second years, at least 90 percent of students taught by corps members gained at least one year in academic growth.

Clark County doesn't measure individual student academic growth using criteria similar to Teach for America, so a comparison of the corps members' performance against other educators isn't available, said Sue Daellenbach, testing director for the district.

However, "There's no reason to complain" about 1 1/2 years of academic growth in a single instructional year, Daellenbach said.

Just as striking is the number of teachers who have decided to continue teaching in Clark County after completing their two-year commitment - 75 percent.

Lynch, who is in her second year at Von Tobel Middle School, said she plans to stay with the Clark County School District when her tour of duty ends in June.

"I'm not ready to let go," Lynch said.

Rickie Yudin, who graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in economics and history, said he can't imagine giving up his job as a first-grade teacher at Jeffers Elementary School.

"In all likelihood I'll stay in teaching," Yudin said. "It's challenging most days, but probably the most rewarding thing I could be doing."

The idea for Teach for America was born as Wendy Kopp's senior thesis at Princeton University in 1989. What if the nation's best and brightest college students could be recruited and trained to spend two years teaching in some of the nation's neediest classrooms? The first corps of 500 teachers began work the next year, assigned to six low-income communities.

In 2006, Teach for America fielded 19,000 applications - including from 10 percent of the graduating classes of both Yale University and Spellman College - for just 2,400 openings. Four applications came from UNLV students. Since the organization's inception, eight UNLV students and four from UNR have been selected as corps members.

The 4,400 current corps members are spread out in 25 urban and rural school districts. More than 95 percent of their students are black or Hispanic.

In the 16 years since its inception, more than 60 percent of Teach for America alumni nationally have continued in education-related careers - even though many say they entered the program expecting to leave the field after two years.

The corps members employed by the Clark County School District earn the same salaries as other licensed personnel - $33,000 for a first-year teacher.

School District officials would like twice as many teachers from the program. "They're from top universities with top academic records; they have the types of hearts you need to work with children. They have everything we're looking for," Rice said. "If I could get that list of names, I'd call them and bring them here tomorrow."

Chuck Salter, executive director of the Las Vegas Valley operations, said the cost of supporting the program here is a factor in whether it can be expanded.

Each local Teach for America office is expected to raise funds locally to cover operational expenses, as well as the $13,000 spent annually to recruit, train and support each corps member.

Salter said last year his office took in $885,000 in donations from local businesses and foundations, including Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, Station Casinos, Citibank, Pinnacle Entertainment and Perini Building Co.

The remainder of his $1.5 million annual operating budget was subsidized by Teach for America's corporate office.

This year's fundraising goal is $1.2 million.

"We can't begin any ambitious growth program until we can fully support the corps we have," Salter said.

The program goes after college graduates who were campus leaders and demonstrated a track record of community service. During five intense weeks, corps members learn instructional techniques and classroom management. Once they're on the job, they meet for group workshops and one-on-one reviews with Teach for America supervisors.

Salter said he hopes to raise enough money this year to add more support staff and lower the ratio of corps members to supervisors, which currently stands at about 40 to 1.

The district encourages schools to pair new teachers with veteran classroom instructors, and the northeast region is using a state grant to assign one mentor teacher to each campus.

"We tell our corps members the best thing you can do is to find a mentor teacher at your school," Salter said. "You're always going to find someone who is passionate, dedicated, has been at it for years and knows what they're doing."

That's something Rebekah Blackwood, assistant principal of Woolley , has noticed about the Teach for America teachers assigned to her campus.

"They're very willing to take constructive criticism," Blackwood said. "In some cases more so than teachers who come out of a four-year college program expecting to do things in a certain way."

The Teach for America teachers also are known for taking on less popular tasks, such as committee work or after-school activities, and for seeking leadership opportunities, principals say.

Consider Nunez, who stayed on at Woolley after his two-year commitment to Teach for America ended in June. He started an after-school club for boys, providing a mix of athletics and character education, and plans to enroll in the district's leadership academy, a four-month requisite for educators interested in applying for administrative positions (along with five years of classroom teaching experience).

"The one thing I've noticed about this district is that it seems to be pretty open to new ideas," Nunez said. "With the rate of growth going on, it needs people who can steer the district in the right direction."

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