Teach for America recruits stick with Kansas City schools

Monday, April 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Tynisha Williams was working through another lesson, just trying to survive her first year in an urban classroom. And there stood one of her first-graders, upset. Her hair had fallen loose.

"So I'm teaching," Williams said Tuesday, "and I'm doing hair."

Williams is one of 50 Teach for America recruits in inner-city schools in Kansas City, and all 50 are still there — a rarity for the program, especially considering the challenges the teachers face.

But all plan to return next year, and like Williams, they have learned tricks in their trade.

For Williams, a Troost Elementary School teacher, it's understanding all the hats she wears — and remembering which one is the most important.

Above all else, "I have to be a teacher first."

The success of the Kansas City recruits may be notable, but the Teach for America program certainly expected most of them to excel. The nationwide program claims that 90 percent of its teachers continue to their second year.

The 20-year-old program is bringing thousands of people into teaching every year by recruiting top graduating seniors, who may have other career plans. It gets them to commit to vigorous training and then to teach at least two years in some of the nation's most challenging classrooms.

The program's founder, Wendy Kopp, visited Williams' classroom Tuesday and those of nine other Troost teachers who are working with veteran teachers to turn around one of Kansas City's most difficult schools.

The school had very high teacher turnover, and its academic performance has been low.

"We've been struggling," first-year principal Judith Jordan-Campbell said as she toured her building with Kopp. "I told (the staff) that what was going on was not working."

With 10 Teach for America teachers in Troost, the principal said, "having new minds and new bodies" helped make changes.

It struck Jordan-Campbell that the new recruits aggressively sought out advice.

"They're not afraid to ask," she said to Kopp. "Is that something you teach them?"

"No," Kopp said. "We just get insistent, demanding people."

Teach for America is expanding its role in the Kansas City area next year.

This year, 48 of the recruits went into the Kansas City district and two to University Academy, a charter school.

Next year, Kansas City will get another 50 recruits, and 25 recruits will be going into the Hickman Mills School District and other charter schools, said Alicia Herald, Teach for America's Kansas City area director.

The recruits commit to at least two years in the classroom, but Teach for America says more than half continue beyond those two years. And many others become advocates for schools even though they may go into other fields.

Kopp said that high-needs schools change the recruits' thinking about urban classrooms.

They stop blaming the students, parents or anything else in the long list of home issues that dog so many students from low-income homes, Kopp said.

They come out believing that teachers, principals and high expectations make the difference.

Williams agrees.

"You have to realize if they have no lights at home, no food, you can't use that as an excuse," she said.

Second-grade teacher Tyson Jurgens at Troost says he's not relying on the prizes and gimmicks anymore to spur his students' desire to behave and to learn.

"Success is intrinsic," he said. "They're taking pride in doing it right the first time."

Jurgens was one of 25,000 graduates who applied for 3,600 teaching positions that Teach for America distributed around the nation this school year. For next year, 35,000 have applied, and the program intends to place 4,100 into schools, Kopp said.

After his two years, Jurgens thinks he may find a role advocating for the arts in schools. He's seen how dance and music can ignite children's creativity in learning.

That may be his niche among the thousands of Teach for America alums.

"I know it's not a two-year fix," he said. "It's more than one person. It's more than one city."

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