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September 2, 2014

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Where I Stand:

Teach For America is working for students

In August, Brian Greenspun turns over his Where I Stand column to guest writers. Today’s columnist is Allison Serafin, executive director of Teach For America-Las Vegas Valley.

As we prepare for the start of another school year in Clark County, we have the opportunity to renew our focus on improving educational outcomes for our children. Ensuring that every student is learning at the highest level is vital if we hope to face down the immense economic challenges in our region and our nation. According to a recent McKinsey and Co. report, by closing the academic achievement gaps that persist in our country along socioeconomic and racial lines, we could increase our gross domestic product by up to $1.2 trillion.

The good news is that closing these gaps is an attainable goal. At Teach For America, a nonprofit organization, our mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders. We do this by recruiting outstanding recent college graduates and working professionals from all backgrounds and career interests to commit to teach for at least two years in urban and rural public schools. We provide the training and ongoing support necessary to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities.

In the Las Vegas Valley, we are entering our sixth year of partnering with the community to bring outstanding talent to our schools that are shortest on resources. Over the past six years we have seen our community change, and we know the current economic climate is creating additional challenges in schools, but we remain steadfast in our belief that all children can achieve on an absolute scale and that poverty is not an excuse for low achievement.

The problem of ending educational inequity seems daunting, but I see evidence of what is possible every day in my work at Teach For America. I see Teach For America’s corps members making a difference:

• Josh Dahn, who led his students to achieve over one grade level of growth in reading;

• Lauren Young, who had nearly 80 percent of her students proficient on the Math CRT;

• Rebecca Alleman, who was named Special Education New Teacher of the Year in the Clark County School District.

I also see the impact of principals such as our alumna Dottie Smith at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a public charter high school primarily serving students from low-income areas. All 34 members of Agassi’s inaugural graduating class have been accepted to and plan on attending college this fall.

Since 2004, Teach For America-Las Vegas Valley has been partnering with Clark County public schools and Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy to leverage the transformational power of education in the lives of our children, their families and their communities.

Over the past five years, 274 Teach For America corps members have taught in Clark County traditional and public charter schools, reaching more than 16,000 students. This fall, almost 100 corps members will teach in schools where 70 percent or more of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

These teachers lead classrooms from prekindergarten through 12th grade, in general and special-education settings and in all core subjects. Recognizing that learning and educational development begin early, we also have expanded our partnership with Acelero Learning, which manages Head Start in Clark County, so that nearly one-third of our incoming corps members will teach in pre-K classrooms.

For principals in more than 50 Clark County schools, Teach For America is one key source of teaching talent. In a 2007 survey commissioned by Teach For America, the majority of these school leaders reported that Teach For America teachers have good or excellent effects on student achievement, and more than half rated our teachers as “above average” or “well above average” compared with all other teaching staff.

The objective driving everything we do is raising achievement levels for our students. Corps members complete intensive pre-service training before their first year of teaching and receive ongoing professional support throughout their two-year commitment. Each year, corps members become even more effective as the Teach For America program is refined.

According to the most rigorous research, including a randomized controlled trial, our teachers produce student learning gains as large as or larger than those achieved by other teachers in the same schools. A 2008 Urban Institute study updated this year found that our corps members have positive effects on student achievement relative to other teachers, including experienced teachers, traditionally prepared teachers, and those fully certified in their field.

Yet the impact of our corps members does not end after two years. Continuing to teach is the most popular career choice for our alumni. In the Las Vegas Valley, more than 70 percent of our teachers remain in their placement classrooms after their two-year commitments.

In addition, we have developed a national initiative to support alumni instructional excellence and implement strategies to keep great teachers in the classroom.

Beyond their Teach For America commitments, our alumni are employing their experience and insight into real solutions to effect the systemic changes required to level the playing field for students and families in low-income communities. By next year, we will have nearly 200 alumni in the Las Vegas Valley.

At Teach For America, we are motivated by the work of committed people such as Josh Dahn, Rebecca Alleman, Lauren Young, Dottie Smith and hundreds of other teachers and school leaders in our region who care deeply about expanding opportunity for our children. Seeing the strides we have made fuels our belief that with the right commitment and investment, we can make educational equity a reality in Clark County and across the country.

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