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Teach For America Comes to Alabama: A Conversation with J.W. Carpenter and Michael Lynch

April 7, 2010 | Tags: teach for america
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By Sallie Owen Gowan

One of the most exciting and influential organizations working to improve public schools today is Teach For America. While Alabama has supplied teachers to the organization, we have never had the opportunity for Teach for America (TFA) teachers to come and work in our schools with the greatest challenges. Until now.

Gov. Bob Riley recently announced a new partnership between TFA and several Alabama school systems in the Black Belt. So we wanted to chat with two people instrumental in bringing this opportunity to our state and implementing it. Meet Michael Lynch, a real estate consultant from Demopolis, and J.W. Carpenter, the new executive director for TFA in Alabama.

A+: So, let’s start with the basics. What is Teach For America?

Carpenter: Teach For America is the national corps of top recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity. Last year, TFA was the No. 1 employer at the University of North Carolina, Georgetown, Spelman, Yale and the University of Chicago, and this year we received over 46,000 applications, a new record.

Teach For America’s mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort. In the 2009-10 school year, over 7,300 TFA corps members are teaching in 35 regions across the United States. Since 1990, TFA corps members have reached approximately 3 million students.

Teach For America’s 17,000 alumni are providing critical leadership -- as teachers, school and district leaders; elected officials and policy advisers; and founders and leaders of education and social reform initiatives – to ensure all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. While only 1 in 10 corps members say they were interested in the teaching profession before joining TFA, nearly two-thirds of our alumni remain in the field of education.

A+: How many teachers are coming to Alabama? Where will they teach?

Carpenter: Beginning this August, we will place 30 teachers per year over the next three years in Sumter, Hale, Perry, Marengo, and Lowndes counties, and the City of Selma.

A+: Do you know yet who those first 30 teachers will be?

Carpenter: We have 20 of our 30 teachers already selected, and we hope to have all 30 teachers selected by the end of April/early May. Five of the teachers are from Alabama, and they all have a strong track record of success and are excited to begin teaching in the Black Belt.

A+: What’s going on regarding Teach For America in Alabama right now?

Carpenter: As the new executive director, I am focused on a number of different things. I am spending a lot of time in the areas where we will place teachers. I especially enjoyed my time at the Education Summit in Selma, meeting and listening to community leaders from all over the country. I hope to spend more time over the next few months introducing myself and Teach For America to the various communities, in addition to building a staff, reaching out to our incoming teachers, and meeting with current and potential supporters across the state. We are lucky to have people like Michael who have given and continue to give their time, energy, and support to Teach For America and to me as we build these important and hopefully long-lasting relationships.

A+: Michael, you were the sparkplug that got all of this started. How did you get interested in Teach for America? What made you think it would be a good thing for the Black Belt?

Lynch: My little sister, Megan, did the Teach for America program in Atlanta after she finished up at Auburn. She lived in an old house in downtown Atlanta with 6 other girls who were also doing the TFA program. When I would come over to visit, I would get to spend a great deal of time with her roommates learning about the TFA program and the students at their schools. Their stories were very inspiring, they all seemed to be making a huge impact on their students by working tirelessly 20 hours a day; getting to school 2 hours early for early morning tutoring sessions, then staying at school 3-4 hours afterwards for afterschool tutoring programs and many nights after tutoring my sister would take a different student out for dinner to talk to them about college, life, making good decisions and how important a good education will be for their future. I remember how my sister would stay up past midnight almost every night to work on her lesson plans for the next day. It was truly amazing to watch these young, super-talented, recent college grads, give up so much of their life to help out a bunch of kids most folks had forgotten about a long time ago….

I grew up in Birmingham, and got to go to a pretty good public school and, not knowing any better, I always figured most schools were about the same. I had no idea… Anyway, after I finished up grad school, I took a job down in the Black Belt where I received my first life lessons in the “real world.” Wow, I had no idea… I volunteered as a tutor in a local school where I got to see firsthand the inequities in our education system. After several months of comparing and contrasting the school I grew up in and the school I was tutoring in, I knew I needed to take some type of action. My little sister’s Teach for America program seemed like it would be a perfect fit for our community, so I asked her if she would put me in touch with the new site development folks at TFA.

A+: J.W., tell us about your experience as a TFA teacher. What is your role now?

Carpenter: I taught high school math in Marianna, Arkansas. Everything was new for me. It was my first year out of college, my first time in the Mississippi Delta, and my first time teaching in a classroom. Like almost all first-year teachers, I struggled at first, but with the support of veteran teachers, administrators, and Teach For America staff and corps members, I was able to quickly begin to make a significant impact. During my second year, 85 percent of my students finished at the advanced or proficient level on their year-end assessment, despite the fact that only 25 percent began the year in that position. I also coached the quiz bowl team, which won its district and finished first for its size among public schools (3rd overall) in my second year. I attribute a lot of my success to support and guidance I received while in the classroom, which is why I am focused on building an excellent staff, and am excited to work with veteran educators in each school district, and the University of Alabama in ensuring that the Teach For America teachers have the same support that I received.

As to the second part of your question, now I’m responsible for creating and enacting a vision for Teach For America in this region, along with running the day-to-day operations. This is my second month on the job. Previously, I worked as an attorney for roughly three and a half years at Walston, Wells & Birchall in Birmingham. I really enjoyed my work as an attorney, but the opportunity to lead Teach For America’s efforts in Alabama was too special to pass up.

A+: What are the reasons that superintendents signed on for this?

Lynch: The superintendents down here in the Black Belt are the real heroes that helped bring Teach for America to our region. They are amazing folks. After getting to know them all pretty well, I learned that each one of them made a choice to live in this community to make a difference by helping improve the education of our children by fighting the fight, everyday, in school districts with very limited resources. I remember driving down to a Black Belt Superintendent’s meeting about two years ago (our very first meeting…) at the Robert Trent Jones golf course in Greenville, AL. I remember talking to a superintendent, a few nights before and asking them to pull some strings to get me put on the agenda… It was amazing, after talking to them about the program and my sister’s experiences, they were all on board and we picked a date to all get together and meet with a Teach for America representative and give the TFA folks tours of their schools. After getting to meet with several TFA alums who came down to visit the Black Belt, the superintendents learned about the program’s talent, energy, resilience, and the sense of urgency that their teachers bring to the classrooms, and in turn, the superintendents wound up being TFA’s biggest advocates and were the folks who sold the program to their school boards, the Department of Education, political leaders and folks with big hearts who gave very generously to help bring the program to our region.

Carpenter: You would have to ask each of them why they support Teach For America but my guess would be that their commitment to a high quality of education for their students is a major factor. A growing body of rigorous research demonstrates that our corps members are effective classroom teachers. A 2008 Urban Institute study updated this year found that Teach For America corps members have a positive effect on student achievement relative to other teachers, including experienced teachers, traditionally prepared teachers, and those fully certified in their field. And in a 2009 independent survey of principals who employ TFA teachers, 94 percent reported that corps members have made a positive impact in their schools. I think Teach For America can have the same impact here in Alabama.

I think another factor might be that we create a pipeline of education leaders in the communities where we work. Our alumni support and often help foster the growth that our corps members see in their classroom. Of the nearly two-thirds of Teach For America’s nearly 17,000 alumni who stay in education, several are running many of the most successful schools in low-income communities, winning the highest teacher accolades, and pioneering innovative reform efforts. In regions where we have been placing corps members for 15 years or more (such as Oakland, Calif.; New Orleans; and Washington, D.C.), a critical mass of alumni within the education system and across all sectors are taking dramatic steps to provide opportunities for all students. Close to 450 alumni lead schools across the country, while more than 20 alumni have founded and continue to lead some of the country’s most innovative nonprofits. In addition, a growing number of Teach For America alumni are pursuing careers in public service, including more than 500 who work in government, politics, or advocacy, and 26 who serve as elected officials. We plan to build the same kind of transformative alumni movement here in Alabama.

I am so excited for our corps members to teach in these superintendents’ school districts. To a one, they are all first rate leaders, and have spent their entire careers working to ensure that all of their students attend excellent schools. We are honored to partner with them here in Alabama.

A+: What kinds of goals do Teach For America corps members set for their students?

Carpenter: Teach For America corps members set ambitious goals for their students because they know their students can meet those high expectations. The corps members align their goals with state standards and rigorous assessments, which vary depending on the subject matter. Our staff will include two program directors who are former TFA corps members who demonstrated excellence and leadership in their respective classrooms. The corps members and program directors use data to track their students’ progress and inform and improve their teaching. Teach For America corps members have met these high standards in regions all over the country, and will do so here in Alabama. A 2004 independent study by Mathematica Policy Research found that students of TFA corps members make 10 percent more progress in a year in math than is typically expected and slightly exceed the normal expectation for annual progress in reading.

A+: Thanks, guys, for all the information. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Carpenter: Thanks to all of our various supporters all over the state. For anyone who is interested in learning more about Teach For America-Alabama, please visit www.teachforamerica.org/corps/placement_regions/alabama/alabama.htm or email me at james.carpenter@teachforamerica.org.

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