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Sunday, October 18, 2009

National teaching program eyeing San Antonio

Web Posted: 10/18/2009 12:00 CDT

National teaching program eyeing San Antonio

By Michelle De La Rosa - Express-News
Susan Cerny told her freshmen biology students they could refer to the structure of DNA as a “swirly staircase” if it will help them remember the concept, but she will use a fancy term, “double helix.”

Her hands danced in the air as she walked around her classroom Thursday, in the Rio Grande Valley’s Donna Independent School District, delivering an animated lesson.

“She teaches in another way. She actually gets us to understand it by doing activities,” student Jose Hernandez said later while his classmates cut out paper shapes to build nucleotides. “Some of my other teachers just talk and talk and make us write.”

Cerny, 23, is a first-year teacher from upstate New York who landed in Donna, a district of about 15,000 students in Hidalgo County, as one of the newest Teach for America corps members.

Teach for America recruits top college graduates without formal teacher training and places them where many of the country’s poorest children go to school.

Some of San Antonio’s most influential leaders are behind an effort to bring Teach for America to San Antonio next fall.

Part of the AmeriCorps national service network, Teach for America is a competitive program with 35,000 candidates, some from the nation’s elite universities, applying for 4,100 spots this year. Those in the program generally aren’t headed for a career in education but see the two-year commitment as community service on par with the Peace Corps.

The organization has 7,300 educators in classrooms across the country, including in Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley.

In Donna, almost all students come from low-income families and nearly half aren’t native English-speakers. The goal: Narrow the achievement gap between those students and their more affluent counterparts.

San Antonio backers of Teach for America, spearheaded by H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, have raised $6 million in a matter of months to help finance a local program.

On Monday, San Antonio Independent School District trustees are expected to vote on an agreement with Teach for America that could bring nearly 300 corps members to SAISD classrooms over three years.

Details, such as deciding how the teachers would become certified during their two-year stint, still need to be ironed out before TFA makes a final decision about coming here. The district employs more than 3,400 teachers.

“We really need the brightest ones to get into teaching and administration,” said Bill Greehey, NuStar Energy LP board chairman. “I really think it’s going to change the landscape long-term.”

Greehey, through NuStar Energy and his charitable organization, the Greehey Family Foundation, has pledged a combined $450,000 to the three-year effort. Other top donors include the Ewing Halsell Foundation, a San Antonio-based private charitable fund, which committed $600,000, and H-E-B, which has pledged $1 million.

Financial support for the program has been so strong that TFA is now considering doubling its original goal of placing 150 teachers in San Antonio. TFA leaders call H-E-B’s Butt their “champion” in San Antonio.

“My hope would be that we could continue to make improvements so that we would have the outstanding urban inner-city district in the state, and that requires a lot of work, much of which is already under way by the superintendent and the current staff of SAISD,” Butt said. “But they need extensive community support to help achieve the goal.”

The community and SAISD still need to come up with $1.5 million by the end of December to get the program off the ground.

The total cost for the three-year venture of bringing 300 corps members to San Antonio is just under $10 million — money that pays for recruiting, selecting and training. SAISD will contribute about $1.4 million of the total cost over three years, and a new contract for additional years could be negotiated after that.

Encouraging leaders

TFA is not a teacher-shortage strategy, according to Ify Offor, TFA’s vice president of new site development. Rather, founder Wendy Kopp envisioned it as a leadership pipeline.

“I think Wendy’s original belief was that if we could one day reach this tipping point where a number of our future leaders had all had this experience, and all had the rare insight into what it actually takes to close the achievement gap, then we would finally get there,” Offor said.

Among program alumni who are fulfilling that mission are Mike Feinberg and David Levin, founders of the national network of Knowledge Is Power, or KIPP, charter schools, a couple of which are in San Antonio.

Other program graduates have gone on to serve as elected officials or to influence education policy on Capitol Hill.

One-third of alumni remain in the classroom while two-thirds remain in the education field.

For SAISD, TFA would be another boost in officials’ efforts to elevate the struggling district, which has made steady academic progress but still faces an achievement gap between its minority and Anglo students, particularly in math and science. The district also had the highest dropout rate in Bexar County for the class of 2007 — 26 percent.

“I’m seeing it as an investment, as a lot of potential leadership for our district,” Superintendent Robert Durón said. “If we can get three or four years out of these teachers and ... maybe even recruit some to be in leadership positions, it’s worth our investment.”

The program is not without its critics, with one of the most common debates focusing on the short, five-week, boot-camp-style preparation TFA corps members undergo before entering the classroom. Another common criticism is that most leave the classroom after two years, before they can really start to bloom as educators.

Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, an SAISD employee group, worries that a revolving door of outside educators, particularly those who’ll leave for careers they trained for in college, could weaken a work force now largely made up of home-grown teachers who plan to stay in the district.

“I don’t want to lose out on the strengths that I see that we have now, which is teachers who actually went to school in SAISD and then come back to give back,” Potter said.

David Moreno, principal at the Todd 9th Grade Campus in Donna where Cerny teaches, thinks TFA educators are a great investment. They are a window to life outside of the Rio Grande Valley, and he likes their strong work ethic and energy for the job.

“We get them every year, and we love them here,” he said. “Our experience is the majority of them finish their commitment and stay here longer.”

The school employs about a dozen TFA corps members, including Cerny, and alumni, who stayed after their commitment was up.

The teaching bug

Cerny worked as an outdoor educator for a land conservancy while she was in college at the State University of New York at Geneseo. While doing that job, she saw how varying economic backgrounds could drastically affect academic opportunity — even for kids who live just 40 miles apart. That sparked an interest in teaching that led her to TFA.

She tried to prepare for the job as best as she could, doing Internet research about the Rio Grande Valley, reading books and spending some time at the Todd campus at the end of last school year.

Then she taught a summer school class while undergoing five weeks of training in Houston, during which she was taught how to plan lessons, manage her classroom and other basics. But, nothing, she said, could prepare her for the rigors of teaching.

She typically arrives at 6:45 a.m. and leaves 12 hours later. She’s now offering two-hour Saturday tutoring sessions to any student who wants help.

One of her first challenges was finding a curriculum beyond the list of objectives the state mandates she teach.

“I did some fancy footwork,” she said. “I had to go over to the high school and ask some people, ‘OK, what am I supposed to be teaching? Where is like, the timeline?’”

Scott Therkelsen, the school’s dean of instruction, is a TFA alum with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He arrived at Todd in 2005 and the progress he’s helped to make at the school has kept him there.

He said when he arrived, the school was labeled a “persistently dangerous” campus by the federal government and only about a quarter of the students passed the math TAKS test. The school has shed the unfavorable label, and, last year, 66 percent passed math.

From the outset, though, he had planned on staying in education.

“I didn’t join TFA to teach for two years and then go back to my other life,” Therkelsen said, touching on one of the common criticisms of the program. “I joined because I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t have a background in teaching.”

Despite her challenges, Cerny’s work appears to be paying off. Therkelsen handed out results of the last six-weeks benchmark, in preparation for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, during a department meeting Thursday. Cerny felt pretty good about what she saw: Her biology students were among the highest performers.

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