Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2019

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Add education to Zappos’ downtown investment forays

Click to enlarge photo CEO Tony Hsieh

As Zappos prepares to relocate to downtown Las Vegas, its growing list of investments in the area now includes more than $1 million to lure dedicated teachers to the area’s schools.

Teach For America, which trains teachers to work in schools that serve children from households in poverty, will receive a donation of $300,000 from the company and $1.2 million from CEO Tony Hsieh.

Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) said he was drawn to the program for several reasons, including a hope that the teachers will consider working and living downtown, where the company will move its headquarters in 2013. “We are excited about our partnership with Teach For America as well as the opportunity to help bring more energy and passion to downtown Las Vegas,” Hsieh said.

A 20-year-old program, Teach For America is a sort of Peace Corps for new teachers. School districts pay its teachers, who make two-year commitments, the same wages as other teachers, but Teach For America trainees receive other benefits.

For each person Teach For America takes on, it spends $40,000 in training, recruitment and other areas over the course of the trainee’s experience. Following each year participants can receive $5,350 awards, for up to $10,700. In addition, student loan payments are put on hold during the program and Teach For America pays the interest accrued over the two years.

The Clark County School District currently employs about 100 Teach For America alums, a tiny percent of the district’s 18,000 teachers. Teach For America’s long-term goal is to have 1,000 alums in various roles in the district, like teachers and administrators, said Victor Wakefield, director of the agency’s Las Vegas Valley operations.

In contributing to the effort, Zappos and Hsieh aren’t just handing over their money and saying, “make it work.” The company is partnering with three schools — Sunrise Acres Elementary School, J.D. Smith Middle School and Roy Martin Middle School — and providing volunteers for them drawn from the ranks of its employees.

“We want Zappos employees to build relations with families, administrators, teachers and students,” Wakefield said.

Wakefield said Teach For America and Zappos share a mission, of sorts, in working to transform downtown into a community.

The Zappos/Hsieh investment is just one of many in the area in recent months. Hsieh and co-investors have purchased the rights to First Friday, the monthly downtown arts scene celebration. Hsieh has given $2 million to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and is helping fund “/usr/lib,” a community tech library soon to open in the Emergency Arts building at 6th and Fremont streets.

“What better way to be part of the community than to be part of exciting urban revitalization,” Wakefield said. “What better way to keep our alumni rooted in this community for life.”

Teach For America recruits college graduates and professionals, using a selection system that Wakefield said was recently validated by an external study for its ability to find people who become effective teachers.

“Berkeley, University of Wisconsin and Michigan are top-producing schools,” Wakefield said. “And 12 to 13 percent of all Ivy League seniors (all seniors, not just those with teaching majors) apply to Teach For America.”

Wakefield said two-thirds of Teach For America trainees stay in the program a third year, and two-thirds pursue long-term careers in education.

Wakefield graduated from Princeton University. He did his “summer institute” Teach For America training in Watts, a gang-riddled section of Los Angeles.

“It was the most rigorous experience of my life but it was awesome,” he said.

Allison Serafin, a special consultant to Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones, also went through Teach For America’s program after graduating from Texas Christian University in political science and social work.

“It completely changed my life,” Serafin said. “I was able to see firsthand through the experience of teaching my sixth-graders that the students were brilliant and capable.”

Serafin, who works by contract with the School District, called Teach For America one of “many excellent partners who share the same commitment to students … and a commitment that all children can achieve.”

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