Teach for America places first-year instructors in Hawaii schools, where they are succeeding
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 27, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 03:40 p.m. HST, Sep 28, 2010
49%... of 2008 Teach for America-Hawaii recruits stayed in Hawaii to teach.
46,000... people applied to Teach for America nationwide. Just
12 percent were accepted.
STAYING POWERTeach for America teachers serve a two-year commitment, but many have remained longer in Hawaii schools. Here are their numbers in Hawaii since they started here in 2006:
» 2010-11: 122 recruits and about 130 alumni
» 2009-10: 120 recruits and 104 alumni
» 2008-09: 107 recruits and 79 alumni
» 2007-08: 101 recruits
» 2006-07: 54 recruits
Source: Teach for America
Statewide, there are now 122 Teach for America recruits and 130 alumni in Hawaii schools. When the program started in 2006, 54 teachers were placed.
Jill Baldemor, Teach for America-Hawaii executive director, said the organization is eager to get more of its teachers in Hawaii classrooms as the state Department of Education works on ambitious reforms as part of a $75 million Race to the Top grant. The department hopes to turn around low-performing schools on the Big Island and Waianae Coast, boost teacher effectiveness and improve student achievement.
"Our whole mission is to close the achievement gap in low-income communities," Baldemor said. "Those are the places where we are focused most. There's definitely room to grow."
The DOE is in talks to renew its contract with Teach for America, a nonprofit compared to a Peace Corps for young leaders seeking to make a difference through education.
Teach for America received $577,000 over five years from the department to provide recruits, who are paid by the DOE and earn slightly less ($40,567 in their first year) than their first-year colleagues.
While they are working in schools, many Teach for America teachers seek licensure and are enrolled in a teaching program.
Ronn Nozoe, acting DOE deputy superintendent, said the department wants to work with Teach for America and other recruitment partners -- from the University of Hawaii to the Troops to Teachers program -- to bring more high-quality teachers into secondary science and math classrooms and struggling schools.
The state has long had a shortage of teachers, especially in hard-to-staff areas.
For the 2008-09 school year, 1,328 new public school teachers were hired statewide. (During better economic times, the DOE has hired upward of 1,600 teachers a year.)
Meanwhile, about 70 percent of math classes and 77 percent of language arts classes in public schools are taught by highly qualified teachers, far short of the 100 percent mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"Teach for America, as well as other alternative programs, they fill that void," Nozoe said. "They provide us with a talent pool. We know we're going to need their candidates."
In its Race to the Top grant proposal, the DOE said it would work with Teach for America to "focus teacher recruitment efforts" to meet shortage areas.
Teach for America started 20 years ago, and there are more than 8,200 first- and second-year "corps members" today in 31 states and Washington, D.C. The organization got a record-breaking 46,000 applications this year and had a 12 percent acceptance rate.
Teach for America recruits go through an intense, five-week course during which they teach summer school under the supervision of experienced teachers and get instruction on everything from how to write a lesson plan to how to motivate a class.
The organization has been lauded by policymakers and educators nationwide as an innovative way to improve schools and student achievement and an opportunity for young up-and-comers to understand firsthand the value of America's public education system.
But it has also garnered criticism from some who say school districts are turning to Teach for America to save money and are thrusting inexperienced corps members into challenging environments (in poor urban schools or remote areas) rather than properly training their own teachers.
Baldemor said that locally, Teach for America recruits are making gains, and many principals have embraced the program.
About 68 percent of 2009's first-year corps members in Hawaii saw "solid" or "significant" gains in student achievement in their first year, according to a Teach for America survey.
And 90 percent of Hawaii principals with Teach for America teachers report the recruits are as effective or more effective than other first-year teachers.
Brenda Vierra-Chun, principal of Wheeler Middle School in Wahiawa, is one of those strong supporters of the program.
She said Teach for America teachers might be young, but they are the "cream of the crop" and come in pumped and ready to help kids. Their enthusiasm, she added, has spilled over to other teachers.
Wheeler has nine Teach for America recruits, and several program alumni who stayed beyond their two-year obligation.
"They take it personally if the kids don't learn, and that's the way it should be," Vierra-Chun said. "They all have that 'want to make a difference' attitude. They're relentless."
Wheeler, where 97 percent of students come from military families, struggles with a transient population.
Only 30 percent of students who start with the school in sixth grade stay through eighth grade. Almost every school day, the campus has three to five new children.
And nearly half of the student population is economically disadvantaged.
Despite those challenges, the school has seen remarkable gains in test scores in recent years, which Vierra-Chun attributes in part to her Teach for America faculty.
In 2004 only 13 percent of students at the school were proficient in math, and 44 percent were proficient in reading. Last school year, 68 percent were proficient in math, and 84 percent tested proficient.
Teach for America recruit Dane Carlson, 23, started at Wheeler Middle last month and says there have been a few rough spots: Lesson plans that did not quite work, getting used to a classroom full of rowdy seventh- and eighth-graders.
But Carlson had the full attention of his math class on a recent weekday when he was teaching them how to convert big numbers to scientific notation. He started his lesson, talking about moving decimal points, by asking the class what made the video game character Super Mario so great.
"His jumping abilities!" one student shouted.
"The guy's got mad hops," Carlson agreed. "He's got Kobe, MJ and all those guys, he's got 'em salivating."
Carlson went on to explain how to move the decimal point -- make it "hop" -- when converting numbers.
Carlson, a University of Hawaii and Kamehameha Schools graduate, said he has long been concerned about inequity in education but never thought of becoming a teacher until he started tutoring student athletes at UH. When one of the athletes he was helping aced a test, he felt a sense of accomplishment, and he knew he was onto something.
"We can all identify the problems" in education, Carlson said. "But what are you going to do to change that? I want to be a part of that change."