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April 24, 2014

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Six questions: Allison Serafin

Executive director, Teach For America Las Vegas Valley

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Tiffany Brown

Allison Serafin is a Teach For America alumna and the Las Vegas Valley office’s new executive director. The program is on track to raise $1 million this year in donations.

Teachers in 94 Clark County classrooms this year are from Teach For America, a nationwide program that places recent college graduates in struggling urban schools for two years. More than three-fourths of the teachers in Clark County typically sign on for a third year, giving the county one of the organization’s highest retention rates. Teach For America alumna Allison Serafin, 32, took over this year as executive director of the program here.

What’s expected of your teachers?

Students in low-income communities are typically two grade levels behind their more affluent peers. As children get older, the gap gets wider. Most teachers move their students one grade level per academic year. We want our elementary school corps members to advance their students at least 1.5 levels.

That’s ambitious for any educator. How do beginning teachers make such strides?

We have three program directors working with our teachers. The outcome is always about student performance and teacher effectiveness. If a teacher says, “My kids had a great day,” we’ll ask, “How do you know?” If a student is struggling, we’ll figure out how to address that child’s needs.

Some principals say Teach For America members are enthusiastic but must guard against stepping on toes. Can you explain?

You have to recognize the limits of your own perspective. Your great ideas might not make sense given a school’s demographics, or the direction the principal wants to go, or the great things already being done by veteran teachers.

How do you prepare teachers for Clark County’s large classes, which are among the nation’s most crowded?

We don’t allow class sizes to be an excuse for lackluster achievement. You control what kind of teacher you are and what your students learn. If a member is struggling with a large class, we’ll find teachers who have succeeded with many students and see what we can learn.

It costs you about $22,000 to recruit, train and support just one teacher. Where does the money come from?

We’re on track to raise $1 million this year from local donations. That will cover about half of our budget. Regional offices like ours are supposed to be self-funded, so we can’t expand until we no longer rely on the national office for funds. That’s going to be tough given the economic climate.

What are the long-term goals for the program?

For every Clark County child to succeed, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status or ZIP code.

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