Teacher Preparation

TFA Alumni Aid New Teachers in New Orleans

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 19, 2013 9 min read
Hannah Sadtler and Derek Roguski are coordinators of the New Teachers' Roundtable in New Orleans.
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Derek Roguski and Hannah Sadtler came to New Orleans in 2008 through Teach For America. The competitive program provided five weeks’ training and helped place them in schools, and both young teachers were eager to learn to teach and help the city’s students.

But they quickly found that they had more questions than answers about the schools they were in and the challenges they encountered.

“We found ourselves in these classrooms with no training for what we were doing there and no connection to our students’ cultures or communities. We’d expected that would be somehow part of the process of becoming teachers in New Orleans,” said Ms. Sadtler, who grew up in Massachusetts.

So when their two-year teaching commitments ended, the pair founded the New Teachers’ Roundtable, a support group that hosts discussions and story circles in which new teachers start to understand their experiences and roles in this city’s history and schools.

The frustrations Ms. Sadtler and Mr. Roguski felt are not unique: With growing numbers of charter schools, increasing ranks of recruits to alternative-certification programs like Teach For America and TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project), and proliferating turnaround efforts that remove a school’s entire staff, many urban schools are bringing in teachers who are younger, more diverse, and less experienced than the ones they replaced or others in their cities.

But this sea change in personnel is particularly evident here in the Crescent City, where Hurricane Katrina accelerated a dramatic restructuring of the school system that was underway before the storm hit in 2005.

In the 2010-11 school year, close to 40 percent of the 2,500 teachers across the city had been teaching for three years or less. Although that proportion was down from a peak of almost half in 2007-08, it contrasts with the 2004-05 school year, when about 17 percent of the city’s teachers had been teaching for such a short time.

The racial makeup of the teaching force has also shifted. This school year, 88 percent of the 44,000 public school students across the city are African-American, but only 49 percent of their teachers are, according to the Louisiana education department. Six years ago, 73 percent of the district’s teachers were African-American. The percentage of white teachers has almost doubled—from 24 percent to 46 percent-in that time, while the percentages of Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian teachers have also increased.

Benefits Debated

Educators and parents are divided over whether this transformation has benefited students. The impact of the shift has yet to be rigorously studied, said Douglas N. Harris, a professor of education and economics at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“What literally changed was expanded choice, autonomy for schools; ... on the face of it, those aren’t necessarily changes in policies related to teachers,” he said. “But the workforce changed dramatically, and it’s hard to imagine, based on what we know about the role of teachers, that this isn’t playing a big role in student achievement.”

The New Teachers’ Roundtable is not the only group that is trying to understand the role and impact of the influx of new teachers that has come to the city since Hurricane Katrina. Individual schools and training programs like TFA, which grew dramatically in the city after the storm, are also examining their recruitment and professional-development models.

“We believe we must continue to focus on recruiting diverse candidates from colleges in Louisiana and across the Southeast to teach in New Orleans so that our corps increasingly reflects the backgrounds of the students we serve,” said Jack Carey, the vice president of regional management for TFA in New Orleans.

The new makeup of the teaching force in New Orleans is the result of a confluence of forces.

One is that every teacher and other public school employee in the city was laid off soon after Hurricane Katrina because of budget woes in the Orleans Parish school system. There was no process for hiring the laid-off teachers who did return. A state civil judge ruled last summer that those 7,500 employees had been wrongfully terminated. That ruling is being appealed.

Meanwhile, a state-run district that had overseen just a handful of schools before 2005—the Recovery School District—took the reins of most schools in the city and has been in the process of handing them over to charter school operators, which have complete autonomy in hiring and firing.

Kindergartner Ja'Mari Lewis works on a writing project at KIPP Primary School in New Orleans.

Most of the schools under the authority of the locally elected school board were also converted to charter schools, and though the United Teachers of New Orleans, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, still has a small staff, it no longer has a contract in any New Orleans schools.

New Schools, New Staff

Though some schools in the city prioritize hiring veteran teachers or teachers from New Orleans, many of the charter schools that have opened in the city have models that may lend themselves to a younger, less-experienced workforce. Schools that use components of the so-called “no excuses” model popularized by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP—longer school days, strict discipline policies, a strong focus on preparing students for standardized tests and college—have blossomed throughout the city.

Ben Kleban, the chief executive officer of the New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, said that around half the teachers in his network of charter schools have come through either TeachNOLA or Teach For America. He said those programs made it easier not just to find teachers, but to find teachers who were likely to fit in with the mission of his schools.

“This work is taxing. ... There are people in certain stages in their life that aren’t looking for that,” Mr. Kleban said.

Schools that might be interested in bringing in more-experienced educators struggle to find them, some charter operators say. “You look at your 20-year or 10-year veterans; ... it’s a really hard pipeline to tap into,” said Morgan Carter Ripski, the president of Collegiate Academies, a charter-management organization with three schools in New Orleans.

Another challenge for recruiting and retention: A workload that averages 80 hours per week for teachers, she said.

Jonathan Bertsch, a spokesman for KIPP, which has nine schools in the city, said the network is increasingly trying to reduce teacher attrition. The network started a day-care program in which teachers can enroll their children and created a database of resources so teachers can spend less time planning.

TFA’s teachers commit to two years of teaching, which some argue guarantees a level of turnover that is detrimental to students’ learning and schools’ community-building efforts. But the organization says that 78 percent of its alumni in the New Orleans area still work in education.

And among local policymakers, there is no consensus that this younger teaching force is a bad thing.

“We have a lot of mini-experiments going on, with many charters using many different human-capital models,” said Neerav Kingsland, the chief executive officer of New Schools for New Orleans, which invests in charter schools in the city. “Do we explicitly know that high teacher turnover is bad for kids? I don’t think we know that yet.”

Regardless of how new teachers arrive, figuring out how to develop and support them is “the next chapter in the New Orleans story,” Mr. Kingsland said.

“I think New Orleans has done a good job in getting really talented folks in front of kids,” he said. “But that talent’s often very raw.”

Wary of Outsiders

A survey of parents conducted last summer found that “there was frequently a debate about the importance of teacher experience,” said Jill Zimmerman, the assistant director of research at the Cowen Institute for Public Education, a think tank at Tulane that studies education improvement efforts in the city.

“Some would say, my child has a brand-new teacher who’s great and it’s OK, ... but the prevailing sentiment was that parents value experience in their kids’ teachers,” she said.

“There’s some uncomfortableness,” she continued, “with teachers who aren’t from New Orleans, who don’t understand the community, who don’t look like them.”

Jolon McNeil, a managing director at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said that many in the city felt that the district had been taken over without community input. “There’s a sense of, ‘They’re not from here; they don’t care about us,’” she said.

But New Orleans’ schools were notoriously low-performing before the governance changes, and city schools’ scores on Louisiana’s state school performance ranking system have been improving: Twenty-one percent of the city’s schools were graded F by the state department of education in 2011, compared with 50 percent in 2009.

“Is this young teaching force, with more churning—are we doing harm to students? Compared to where we were, absolutely not,” said Leslie Jacobs, who was on the state’s board of education from 2000 until 2008. “Compared to some ideal staffing tenure, possibly. But I can’t measure against an ideal. I can measure us against where we were.”

Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the Recovery School District, said, “I’m concerned about getting the best, most effective teachers while being conscious that we have to increase the number of minorities in the field.”

Ms. Carter Ripski said that Collegiate Academies is working with alumni from the high school that was formerly in its Carver campus to help find more teachers from the community and give students a sense of the school’s history.

For its part, TFA, which currently has 375 first- and second-year teachers in New Orleans, has been focusing on increasing its diversity: Sixteen percent of its 2012 corps in the city identified as African-American, a percentage that has tripled since 2011. TFA has also increased its recruiting at local universities, and this year will focus on the history of race and education in New Orleans at corps members’ first training, Mr. Carey said.

TeachNOLA is upping its local recruitment, too, said Ana Menezes, a vice president at TNTP, which runs TeachNOLA.

Shared Concerns

Some TFA alumni come out of the program feeling empowered, and the new governance structure has brought a wave of energy to the education community in the city.

“For a young person, it provides an opportunity to have more influence than you’d have in a traditional setting,” said Andrew Cox, who joined TFA in 2007 and taught in New Orleans schools for three years. While he no longer teaches, he still works at a school as a data analyst.

But, meanwhile, Ms. Sadtler and Mr. Roguski found their concerns resonating with other teachers and parent and activist groups.

“It wasn’t just a setup for the kids, it was a set-up for the TFAers, too—they didn’t get the support they needed,” Ms. McNeil said.

And while the New Teachers’ Roundtable, which has about 25 regular members and 75 who have come to larger events, plans to continue its discussion and support groups for new teachers, there’s something else stirring here, too.

At a recent event, when one participant suggested that teachers should have a stronger voice when they had questions about what was happening in their schools, another teacher suggested that they look no further than the group that had provided the room where the event was taking place: the United Teachers of New Orleans. A recruiter was standing by.

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Teachers Search for Place in New Orleans


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