Teach for America still growing in Mississippi

TFA Curriculum Specialist Miles McCauley and University of Mississippi graduate, center, discusses techniques for making key points clear and engaging with corps members, Marcae Thompson, left, and Katherine Brown, both University of Alabama graduates at Pearman Elementary School, in Cleveland, Miss. (AP)

TFA Curriculum Specialist Miles McCauley and University of Mississippi graduate, center, discusses techniques for making key points clear and engaging with corps members, Marcae Thompson, left, and Katherine Brown, both University of Alabama graduates at Pearman Elementary School, in Cleveland, Miss. (AP)

Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

CLEVELAND, Miss. (AP) — Janee Ford is one of hundreds of aspiring educators wrapping up a five-week course at Delta State University, part of the Teach for America program. This fall, she’ll step to the front of a Mississippi classroom for the first time as a teacher.

“Of course I’m scared,” she said. “It’ll feel like the first day of school for me all over again.”

About 200 members TFA members will do the same across Mississippi this fall. Another 200 or so will start the second year of their two year commitment to the state’s students.

The program started out small in the Magnolia State, with 21 teachers in the fall of 1993. Twenty years later, fueled in part by $6 million annually in state money, the number is about 400.

TFA members account for less than 2 percent of the 34,000 teachers statewide, but they make up a larger portion of first-year teachers, especially in the Delta. And there are plans for further growth: Ron Nurnberg, executive director of TFA’s Mississippi program, said he could place many more teachers if they were available.

TFA aims to recruit smart people who might otherwise never set foot in a classroom. School districts pay teachers regular salaries, and TFA pays for training over the summer and during the school year. Nationwide, some TFA teachers end up in big-city schools, but in Mississippi most work in small-town and rural districts.

TFA members, many of whom graduated from prestigious universities, are meant to carry a message to students: They can achieve, graduate, and be ready for bigger things. It’s a message that brought Ford herself to organization.

Ford said that as a student at Greenville-Weston High School, she took math from a TFA teacher who showed her how to be a serious student.

“He didn’t look at our socioeconomic status as a hindrance. He looked at it as a stepping stone,” Ford said of Bradley St. Germain. “He just kept encouraging me … not only just me, but I saw him push all of his students.”

Now Ford, a Mississippi Valley State University graduate, is going back to Greenville as a middle school teacher.

Many of the districts that hire from TFA have trouble recruiting teachers elsewhere. Of the 27 Mississippi districts where TFA placed teachers last year, all but Jackson and Hinds County are on the state’s list of “critical shortage” areas. And many TFA members teach math, science and foreign languages, subjects listed for critical shortages statewide.

TFA had 38 teachers at Hazlehurst Elementary School last year, a majority of the 59 teachers at the district’s 1,200-student K-8 elementary school. That’s the largest number of program members in one school statewide. Bill Welch, the conservator who is running the Hazlehurst system after the state seized control, said many traditional teachers don’t want to work in a district under such conditions.

Despite large or long-term TFA presences, overall results are still poor in many districts, including Hazlehurst, Holmes County and Greenville. Nationally, some research shows that Teach for America’s members do at least as well as other teachers. But critics say one of the biggest drawbacks is they’re likely to be gone after two years.

“Nobody would say you could have all first or second-year teachers and be successful,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of the education reform group Mississippi First and a TFA alumna.

Some program alumni do stay. Nurnberg said about 40 percent have remained in Mississippi classrooms for at least one more year.

But St. Germain, the teacher who steered Ford, teaches in New Hampshire now. Birdette Hughey, named Mississippi’s 2011 teacher of the year as a TFA member at Greenwood High School, left to train to be a principal in Baltimore.

It costs TFA about $41,000 over two years to recruit and train a teacher in Mississippi. State taxpayers put up about 60 percent of TFA’s budget in the state each year. Though some other states give public money, Nurnberg said Mississippi’s public share is unusually high. He attributes that to a shallow pool of wealth in Mississippi. The next largest donor to TFA in Mississippi is Arkansas’ Walton Family Foundation.

Moving forward, TFA leaders hope that they can make a bigger impact on Mississippi as alumni become principals, superintendents and education advocates.

“A lot of our focus is to swell that pipeline of school leaders,” Nurnberg said.

Last year, four TFA alumni were principals in Mississippi. Four more were enrolled in the Mississippi Principal Corps, a University of Mississippi program. But TFA’s move into school leadership has been slower in Mississippi than in other states. Some TFA alumni have become school board members and superintendents. Louisiana State Superintendent John White, is a TFA alumnus, as is Tennessee State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

The state’s new charter school law could accelerate the move. Some TFA grads have gone on to found charter school groups. Nurnberg said such schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, are likely to be attractive to teachers completing TFA commitments.

“They want to go be part of proving that a team of people together can be a catalyst for changing the odds for children,” Nurnberg said.

And TFA says it’s likely to send new teachers to charter schools.

“We would very likely go and place with them if we believe there is a need,” Nurnberg said.

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