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Teach for America educators help make difference in PB


After a long day, a diverse group of rookie teachers hailing from states north, south, east and west of Arkansas put away their chalk, textbooks and Smartboards recently to enjoy some well-deserved social time.

It’s the end of the school year and time to relax over pizza and drinks. As they waited for others in the group to arrive, several of them sank down into the oversized leather sofa in the living room to share experiences from an eventful year. The multi-level house, tucked away in the woods, is a temporary home away from home for the young pacesetters.

Each year, a group of dedicated college students from Teach for America descends upon Pine Bluff as part of an effort to alleviate teacher shortages and increase student achievement in local schools.

TFA is a national corps of teachers working to ensure educational equality for children stricken by poverty. The organization’s unique non-traditional approach to preparing teachers for the classroom selects high-achieving college students and professionals, many of whom have backgrounds in fields other that education, to train and place in areas with the greatest needs.

After training, the teachers, all of whom are required to have shown a commitment to social justice, apply for open positions in low-income school districts. Upon hire, they are contracted for two years. Pine Bluff has partnered with TFA since 2010.

This year’s group of 13 new teachers and three alums — those continuing to teach after meeting the contract requirements — have served at Pine Bluff High School, Pine Bluff Lighthouse Charter School and First Ward Learning Center.

Ronald Laurent, principal at First Ward Learning Center, has worked with TFA teachers in the past at Jack Robey Junior High School in the past and currently works with two at First Ward. Laurent said their abilities are comparable to educators who take the traditional route to becoming classroom teachers.

“When it comes to curriculum and how to write a lesson plan and how to deliver a lesson plan, they’re great,” Laurent said. “At Robey, the one reason our test scores were so good and that we improved so much is because of TFA. They stay abreast of the trends in education and that makes a big difference.”

Laurent said his only recommendation for improvement would be in the area of classroom management, but added that the teachers have learned over time, leaving only one downside.

“I wish they would stay once they finish their requirement,” he said. “Normally they move on.”

The retention rate is pretty good now, but is expected to improve, according to Jared Henderson, TFA Arkansas executive director. Alums Courtney Stone, Alyssa Oliveira, and Kate Wilhelmi are in their third year at Pine Bluff High School. Henderson reports that approximately 15 percent of teachers from the first two-year period are still in classrooms, with another 15 percent working as staff supporting those in the classrooms. With 20 districts in Arkansas, Henderson said, “We expect those percentages to increase by 10 percent across the state.”

Making the journey from states near and far, these new teachers forsake family, friends and all that is familiar to serve people they don’t know.

“It is culture shock, but in a good way,” said Mandy Sheehan, who is from Lafayette California. “I just love the southern hospitality.”

But that’s just a bonus for the education major who followed her older sister and brother in joining TFA after noticing the impact it had on their lives.

“I joined TFA because the mission really spoke to me,” said Rachel Miller, from Strongsville, Ohio. “I already had a teaching license, so it wasn’t a matter of being certified. I really liked being a part of a community that was in education for the same reasons as me, which was to work in an underserved community promoting educational equity.”

The educational deficiencies faced by millions of poverty-stricken children in America are a solvable problem, according to Teach for America. As a part of its mission, the organization expresses the importance of helping “kids growing up in poverty beat the culture of low expectations.”

That part of the mission became reality for Alison Divino, a cultural studies major from Louisville, Ky., in her second year as an English teacher. Divino moved to the edge of her seat as she spoke of one of her student’s struggles at home, his behavior issues and subsequent failure to meet his reading goals. Her eyes sparkled as she related the student’s and her own transformation.

“After working with him an entire year, this year he took his reading test and went past his goal … way past. He’s never done that!” she said. “It helped me believe that what TFA has been telling us is really possible — that no matter what a child’s area code is they should be able to recieve an equal education and the same opportunities that a kid has that lives in an affluent area.”

“There are some brilliant kids here,” Henderson said. “Our teachers tend to fall in love with them.”

Henderson said that because TFA is a non-profit organization, the number of teachers it can place is directly connected to the amount of philanthropic support and donations.

For more information about Teach for America Arkansas visit:http://www.teachforamerica.org/where-we-work/Arkansas