The story of education in Memphis is being rewritten.
No longer is the narrative of Shelby County’s children reading below grade level and being woefully unprepared for college accepted. The education reform story begins with teachers, and the organizations working to raise the standards, one educator at a time.
“There is an inequity in our city based off where people live,” said Candace Obadina, Memphis Teacher Residency camp director and recruiter. “The chance they will be college ready is based off the high school they attend so we want to be sure all children in the city have the opportunity for the highest education possible and if college is an option we want them to be prepared.”
It’s a three-pronged approach that’s part recruitment, part training and part retaining. Teach For America, New Memphis Institute and Memphis Teacher Residency all play unique roles.
Sylvia Saracino Koodrich, managing director of development and public affairs for Teach For America Memphis, grew up in rural central Pennsylvania with limited options for quality high schools. She was fortunate that her parents could afford for her to attend a high-performing school in another part of the state, which she believes made all the difference in where she is today. And that includes an education at Georgetown University.
“I was familiar with the concept of how where you live determines your education,” she said. “That’s the reason the mission of Teach For America resonated. If my parents didn’t have the resources I wouldn’t have been on the same path, I wouldn’t have been on the path for Georgetown.”
After graduation, Koodrich became a Teach For America Corps member in 2003. She spent the first of her five years in the classroom teaching a bilingual elementary school class in New York City. Most of her students started out speaking half Spanish and half English, but by the end of the school year everyone learned to participate 100 percent in English. And Koodrich realized she loved education and working toward social justice. The longer she spent in the classroom, she said, the more she realized there were so many things outside the classroom that impacts children.
“There’s a lot more to educational equity than just the classroom and where they go to school,” Koodrich said. “There is also a need for our alumni to build from their classroom perspectives, and go to different sectors where they can still continue to influence students’ lives. I thought about what that theory of change could mean for me. I wanted to reach more people and convince them to join Teach For America and commit to attacking the problem of educational equity from multiple angles. That brought me to Memphis.”
Koodrich joined the Teach For America Memphis team in 2010. Her first role was working with people who were considering offers to join the program. She became a promoter of Memphis and the need that exists in the city, spreading the word of education reform in the Bluff City.
Teach For America places teachers in many of the schools in the Shelby County system, Achievement School District and charter-managed facilities.
Teach For America works with all principals who have capacity to hire, partnering exclusively with low-income schools. Teach For America’s job is to connect those qualified candidates to the principals who then make the hiring decisions.
Teach For America brings in anywhere from 100 to 200 people per year to teach in the community’s classrooms. From a small but mighty charter cohort of 50, they now support nearly 300 corps members in addition to over 400 alumni who continue to effect change for kids in Memphis every day. Of those alumni, about 300 continue to teach in city schools.The organization works hard to keep those teachers in the city, whether as direct contributors to the education reform movement in the city or by supporting equity for kids in other ways. This commitment to learning and growing with Memphis at the front and center is reflected in the paths their corps members pursue as alumni. Program Manager of Just City and Memphis 2011 alumna Allison Gibbs was recently named one of “Memphis’ Top 20 Professionals Under 30”.Memphis 2010 alumna Kristle Hodges leads Freedom Preparatory High School. Last year, Freedom Preparatory was named as one of Tennessee’s Reward Schools. Teach For America – Memphis’ founding regional executive director, Brad Leon, is now the Chief of Strategy and Innovation and leads the work in Shelby County Schools’ iZone.
But any time those teachers decide to stay in the classroom after a two-year commitment is complete, well, that’s a good thing for the community. Among them is Memphis 2006 alumnus Jack Replinger, a High School Physics teacher at The Soulsville Charter School who received The Tennessee Charter School Teacher of the Year award in 2015.
“We’ve been in Memphis 10 years and have some people who have taught the whole time,” Koodrich said. “Our alumni are our biggest influencers across the country. The people we have in Memphis are so passionate and engaged, so any chance they get, they really spread the word.”
Teach For America recruits teachers to come to Memphis from outside the region, but that’s not the only focus. Part of the recruitment effort is focused within.
“Our Memphis regional recruiters are able to tap into people who are already here and have a wealth of experience and would be wonderful assets in the classrooms,” Koodrich said. “We look for diverse leaders and that includes native Memphians. Sometimes people who are in Memphis their whole life aren’t always aware of how they can contribute to change in schools in the region.”
Once teachers are recruited it’s important he or she is trained to best do the job. Memphis Teacher Residency is primarily a teacher prep program.
But in addition to what it does to train teachers through a year-long residency, it also has a summer internship program that exposes college students to urban education while also working to reduce the summer learning regression.
Memphis Teacher Residency places its teachers in six neighborhoods: Graham Heights, Mitchell Heights, Alcy Ball, Frayser, Orange Mound and Binghampton. The six-week internship for college students is a four-week camp in the summer for students. This year, it will be hosted at Cornerstone Prep and Kingsbury.
The program will have 39 interns this summer who will go through a condensed version of the residency program. Obadina said the camp provides experience for the potential teachers while making a real difference in the educational growth of the students.
“It’s a lot of fun, high energy. It doesn’t feel like school,” she said. “We’ve seen that kids are more excited when they enter the school year and are motivated to learn. Last year students grew a month and a half in their reading.”
Obadina moved to Memphis from Indianapolis for training. She was a resident teacher and now works to develop the camp.
Similar to the on-going support that MTR provides teachers, MTR Camp includes ongoing coaching by certified teachers who come into the classroom to observe and offer feedback.
“We want our teachers and interns to be mature in instruction and core competency as well as character,” she said. “With that Christian context we want them to be servants at schools. We want them to understand and be learners. We want them to use the most effective strategies.”
In Memphis, Teach For America is a unique regional institute that places teachers in local classrooms over the summer. The teachers are housed at the University of Memphis.
It’s on-the-job training, so to speak, as they are on the ground using Tennessee standards. And once the school year begins, the teachers continue learning from his or her individual principal while Teach For America provides support.
“One of our hallmarks is we continue to train and complement what the principals are doing in those buildings,” Koodrich said. “In the beginning we’re 100 percent housing them, teaching them, getting their student-teacher training. Then it becomes a partnership between our teacher coaches and school leadership.”
Retaining teachers in the Memphis area goes beyond making connections to a school where he or she can make a difference. Sometimes teachers devote so much time to the school it’s hard to expand connections within the city to get a better feel for what the community is all about.
Robbye Good is director of talent retention initiatives at New Memphis Institute. Part of her job is to better understand what teachers need not only for development but to stay in the community.
And a big part of that is to have social circles that extend beyond colleagues.
“A teacher is a whole person so if they want to do roller derby they need to be connected to teams, “Good said. “If they have an interest in financial literacy we want to make sure they’re connected to the financial community.
“We learned teachers want authentic connections to the community. They get incredibly imbedded in the school community, but in some areas of the city they might not live there. So they need a connection in the community at-large.”
New Memphis Institute developed a multi-pronged strategy to retain teachers.
The Embark program is focused on retaining 20-somethings. For teachers, that is focused on those who are in their second year in the classroom.
Embark already has 500 alumni who are working toward becoming the next leaders of the city.
“The great thing about 20-somethings is they’re beginning to settle down, thinking about families and where they want to choose to live,” Good said. “We want Memphis to be the top choice. They need to know there are good educational opportunities for children.”
New Memphis Institute tracks drivers of retention in the community. Things like development, growth in social circles and feeling of respect as a professional all matter when someone decides to settle in Memphis or move on.
For first-year teachers, there is something called First Friend. The new educators get a “first friend,” someone who is a Memphis ambassador. The new teachers have a schedule of events and attractions to attend with his or her new friend, ranging from a play at Hattiloo Theatre to visiting Wiseacre Brewing.
Exposure to community engagement helps a younger generation interested in giving back understand the many opportunities that exist in Memphis.
“The social networking that’s happening and the sense of being part of a community, not just the school, is powerful,” Good said. “Seeing they can stay in Memphis long term, their peers become their family.”