Teach For America Setting Sights on Pre-K

Early-childhood pilot launched as interest in preschool rises.

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The dress-up clothes, toy kitchen, and other dramatic-play items in Jessica Haskell’s classroom are crammed under a table when they’re not being used. Some of her overhead lights don’t work, and her 4- and 5-year-old students are crowded around tables instead of moving freely throughout the room.

None of it resembles the type of early-childhood learning environment the experts might recommend, and it could be enough to frustrate any teacher—even more so a rookie right out of college whose route to the classroom was the nontraditional Teach For America training program.

But Ms. Haskell, a 2006 graduate of Boston University, has been taught to make the most of a difficult situation, and her skills are being put to the test as one of the first TFA corps members in the program’s new early-childhood initiative.

“It’s hard to come in here with all these ideas about how you want to structure things, but you have to work with it,” said Ms. Haskell, 23, who teaches a split pre-K and kindergarten class here at Scott Montgomery Elementary School, in the Northwest part of the city near the Washington Convention Center.

Founded in 1990 by then-college student Wendy Kopp, the New York City-based TFA has prepared 17,000 teachers through a program that includes an intensive summer training course and four weeks of student teaching. Teach For America occasionally has had its recruits assigned to prekindergarten in the past, but last summer was the first time the organization specifically trained recruits to work in public pre-K classrooms.

That move reflects both a growing demand for early-childhood teachers and a demand from TFA corps members themselves, according to Catherine Brown, the director of Teach For America’s early-childhood initiative. Over the years, she said, participants assigned to higher grades have often said of their students, “‘If only I could have gotten to them younger.’”

‘Bringing Leaders’

With the 65,000-student District of Columbia public schools, as well as most states across the country, pledging to increase enrollment in public pre-K programs—and teacher turnover in preschool classrooms a persistent problem—the availability of more college-educated teachers is likely to be well received. A recent study on the early-childhood workforce in California, for example, recommended that policymakers work to attract “well-educated young candidates” into the profession.

So far, 12 TFA members are working in early-childhood jobs in Washington, and another 15 are spread throughout the country, in such disparate places as Camden, N.J., Houston, and an American Indian reservation in South Dakota. The organization’s goal is to have 150 corps members working in preschool classrooms by next school year.

“We are bringing leaders into this realm,” said Amy Black, the executive director of Teach For America’s Washington region. She added that because of current efforts in the city to expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds—supported by District of Columbia Superintendent Clifford B. Janey—the “policy environment here was conducive to what we were trying to do.”

Ms. Brown added that it’s “hard to find a region [in the country] that isn’t focused in some way on early childhood.”

The early-childhood initiative adds a dimension to a program that has drawn criticism from some in the more traditional teacher-training community, who question the wisdom of assigning young recruits without extensive educational training to teach urban and rural students who need the most help.

But Helen Blank, a pre-K expert and the director of leadership and public policy at the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, said the initiative “encourages young people to think about careers with young children,” even if they don’t remain in teaching.

Ms. Blank, who also served on TFA’s early-childhood advisory group, said it was important, however, for the corps members to balance their enthusiasm for their new assignments with “respect for the people who have been doing this for some time.”

Making Connections

Part of TFA’s ongoing support for corps members here, in fact, will be visits to highly rated preschools in the Washington area so they can observe experienced teachers.

An online discussion group also has been created, with the help of corps members who already have experience teaching in preschool classrooms, as a resource to give the new teachers a place to ask questions and share comments.

At Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill one day recently, teacher Khadija Amjad, who graduated last year from George Washington University, rang a triangle to alert her students, mostly 4-year-olds, that it’s almost time for “morning meeting.”

“How is that pattern coming along?” she asked a dark-haired girl, age 4, in a khaki school-uniform skirt who is stacking small cubes of different colors.

As the pupils sat in a circle on a colorful rug, Ms. Amjad led them in a discussion of the numerals in the day’s date.

Later, after the girl working with blocks talks about her purple, red, and green pattern, Ms. Amjad mentioned that she heard one of the children singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while he was coming up the stairs earlier.

“Can you find the rhyming words?” she asked after the group sang the song. “Stream and dream.”

Watching her from the back of the room, Ms. Black, the TFA regional director, was impressed with how Ms. Amjad keeps her students thinking.

“There is not a missed opportunity to make connections,” she said.

Some of the new teachers were drawn to TFA without a specific plan to work in pre-K classrooms, said Ms. Brown, the group’s early-childhood director. Others were interested from the beginning in working with young children.

Ms. Haskell helps a mixed class of prekindergarten and kindergarten students with a Valentine’s Day project at Scott Montgomery Elementary School.
Ms. Haskell helps a mixed class of prekindergarten and kindergarten students with a Valentine’s Day project at Scott Montgomery Elementary School.
—Christopher Powers/Education Week

“I joined TFA because I related 100 percent to the mission,” Ms. Amjad said, but added that her personality “seems to fit with pre-K. I’m in love with my students, and I’m in love with my school.”

Some TFA teachers have even been involved in launching prekindergarten classrooms.

At Rosebud Elementary School on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in south-central South Dakota, Ashley Ogonowski, a TFA member who teaches 1st grade, said she noticed how far behind students were academically despite having attended kindergarten. “I expected them to be low, but they didn’t even know their letters and numbers,” she said.

Being familiar with Oklahoma’s public pre-K program, and having looked up research on the benefits of prekindergarten, she asked school district officials if starting such a program might be possible. After only four months on the job during the 2005-06 school year, she was writing a proposal for a district-run pre-K program.

Children who do not test high enough on screenings for kindergarten go to the pre-K program now established at Rosebud Elementary and two other schools in the 2,100-student Todd County school district. The pre-K program enrolls 35 children.

Becoming Part of a Team

Members of TFA seem quick to become active members of their schools’ faculties.

At Brent Elementary in Washington, Principal Adrienne Clark, who has hired TFA corps members in the past, has been more than satisfied with Ms. Amjad’s performance. After only a few months, Ms. Clark already is considering Ms. Amjad for future leadership positions. But the principal knows better than to move too fast.

“I have to be patient before I ask them to do too much,” said Ms. Clark, who also has a TFA member teaching 2nd grade. “I have to let them hone their own practice.”

For Ms. Amjad, working as part of a pre-K team of teachers is a lot different from being in college. But she said she values the insight she has received from her co-workers.

“They tell me who to be really nice to, and who to leave alone,” she said.

At Montgomery Elementary, Ms. Haskell teaches a combined pre-K and kindergarten class because her principal, Melissa Martin, herself a former TFA teacher, wanted her to take part in a professional-development program that was open only to teachers working in kindergarten or a higher grade.

In her less-than-spacious classroom, Ms. Haskell paused to ask her pupils questions as she read a book about a farmer angry about the clever rabbits invading his vegetable garden.

“Who remembers our new vocabulary word for ‘very angry?’’’ she asked. “Furious!” she shouted, letting the children yell with her.

With two grade levels and a wide variety of skills in one classroom—some students are reading, some are still learning letter sounds—Ms. Haskell said she recalls her TFA training daily.

“I learned the word ‘differentiation,’ ” she said, “and I live by that every day.”

Vol. 26, Issue 23, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: February 9, 2007, as Teach For America Setting Sights on Pre-K
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