Las Vegas Sun

July 3, 2015

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Q&A - Victor Wakefield:

TFA an ‘investment’ in education

Group’s leader says it’s well-suited to help CCSD fill teacher vacancies in high-poverty areas

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Some lawmakers have questioned Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposal to include $2 million for the nonprofit Teach For America, which trains teachers for the Clark County School District. The Sun asked Victor Wakefield, the executive director of TFA in the Las Vegas Valley, about the program and the governor’s proposal.

What would TFA do with the $2 million?

This state investment would allow Teach For America to recruit, train and support 50 additional teachers for critical subjects in high-poverty CCSD schools each year of the biennium. Teach For America teachers fill vacancies in high-poverty schools. The investment will help us better meet the demand from our district, parents and principals across Clark County. Last year, more than 80 requests from principals for additional teachers went unmet.

We intend to leverage every state dollar with $4 from other funding sources, including foundations, corporations and individual donors. In essence, this commitment from the state will help us apply $10 million over a two-year period toward a proven solution: recruitment and development of strong teachers and leaders committed to helping kids rise up through education and break the cycle of poverty.

Critics have said TFA has a high turnover rate — the number of people who leave the school district after their two-year commitment is up — and so they see this as a poor investment. How do you respond to that?

Teach For America corps members and alums will quickly tell you that their commitment to students is never “up.” These individuals begin with at least a two-year commitment to teach in high needs classrooms, but the majority of our teachers stay beyond two years. In the Las Vegas Valley, two-thirds remain in education beyond the two-year commitment.

Today, 165 alumni live and work in our community, including more than 100 who remain teachers in CCSD; 17 who have nonclassroom roles in the district, such as literacy coaches or administrators; and 25 more impacting education in our community through other channels, like nonprofit leadership, higher education and policy.

We believe that the impact of the teaching experience — be it two years or 20 — will reinforce their passion to be lifelong advocates for students. Most will do this as lifelong teachers or school or district leaders, and others will be advocates for students from other fields such as law, policy, medicine or nonprofit leadership. It will take leadership at all levels of the system and targeted support in other sectors to make good on our promise to our kids and families.

Some people question why the state would give money to a nonprofit organization to train teachers instead of working through the public schools. Why should the state give TFA money? Couldn’t the Clark County School District do what TFA does on its own?

An investment in Teach For America is an investment in an additional talent pipeline for Clark County schools and the leadership capacity of the community. Teach For America actively recruits at more than 450 college campuses year-round attracting a diverse group of leaders from all across the country to teach in high-need classrooms in Las Vegas. Additionally, in a school system that is a majority minority, it is critical that we try to mirror the student population. Our current teaching corps is comprised of nearly 40 percent people of color, which outpaces the district average by nearly 20 percent. As we grow, we’re looking to increase that number.

To ensure that the community investment reaches as far as possible, we are committed to collaboration. It takes a communitywide movement to make change for education. Over the past two years, we’ve developed strong collaborative relationships with the Public Education Foundation, the Clark County Education Association and Communities in Schools of Southern Nevada. Our teachers also enroll in the UNLV certification and master’s program while teaching. There are so many pockets of excellence in our community, and we see our role as helping to break silos in education and drive toward a common vision of ensuring that we provide an excellent education for every child.

What do you see as TFA’s role in Nevada?

Teach For America has an important role in Nevada in the short term and long term. We have a critical teacher shortage right now, especially in hard-to-staff subject areas and at our high-poverty schools.

There are hundreds of permanent substitutes in our schools, especially where kids are already coming in behind because of the challenges of poverty, and Teach For America is part of the solution by recruiting and developing teachers who have a positive impact on student achievement and their school culture as a whole.

Superintendent (Pat) Skor­kowsky recently said that hiring new teachers is one of the district’s top priorities, and we’ve been asked to play a larger role.

In the long term, Teach For America is an investment in leadership for education. Alumni of Teach For America are contributing as dedicated teachers, school and district leaders, education advocates and organizers, elected members of the State Board of Education and founders of nonprofits focused on student success.

How does TFA measure success, and how does the program here measure up?

Teach For America has a comprehensive, data-driven approach to recruiting, training and developing talented recent college graduates and career-changers to teach successfully in low-income communities. A growing body of rigorous, independent research shows that TFA corps members are having a positive impact in their classrooms. Since 2009, studies done on teacher effectiveness in three states — Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee — have concluded that Teach For America is the top provider of new teachers in the state.

An independent study of this magnitude has not been conducted in Nevada, but we do know our teachers are having a positive impact. Eighty-five percent of principals who work with our teachers report that they have made a positive impact on their schools. In addition, Teach For America-Las Vegas Valley has produced at least one Clark County New Teacher of the Year every single year since the 2005 school year. The 2012 winner, Ryon Tanara, was recognized for his extraordinary efforts to lead a large percentage of the nonproficient seniors at Canyon Springs High School to pass the writing proficiency exam. The 2011 winner, Chris Reger, had 88 percent of his eighth-graders pass the algebra honors exam versus a 28 percent pass-rate the previous year.

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