'Committing to Memphis' through Teach for America

Since its charter corps in 2006, Teach for America - Memphis has been infusing local schools with new, talented educators who are passionate about giving students the opportunity to succeed. There are currently 360 alums in the region who continue to advocate for education reform from the classroom and beyond.

While a religious studies major at the University of Chicago, native South Carolinian Richard Bailey had the opportunity to tutor at some of the neighborhood schools.

It was through this experience he noticed not all high school experiences are created equal.

“That showed me that not every student is lucky enough to get the education they deserve. I saw that the majority of African-American students from low-income backgrounds were not getting the education they deserved,” Bailey, now 32, said. “My experience ignited a passion for teaching and serving others.”

After completing a summer program teaching in Boston and Kentucky as well as his degree, Bailey discovered his calling. He decided he was going to do what he could to ensure every student he came into contact with could get a quality education, and so he applied to Teach for America.

Teach for America was established in 1990 to recruit quality graduates from top universities across the nation to teach in some of America’s most underserved neighborhoods. Corps members commit to teach for two years in public or public charter K-12 schools in 52 high-need regions under the collective TFA mission that all children deserve access to excellent education.

Bailey was one of 50 members to serve in the first Memphis and Shelby County TFA corps in 2006.

After being accepted to the program and being assigned to Memphis — corps members list their preferences on their applications, but they are not guaranteed placement in that area — Baily underwent an intensive summer training program that included workshops and classroom experience before serving as a history teacher at Westside Middle School.

“My first two years were pretty transformative. I got to learn about what I don’t know. I got to build relationships with my students. I got to learn how to teach and how to make mistakes,” he said.

Teach for America grew out of a senior thesis submitted by Princeton University student Wendy Kopp, who recognized that low-income students received no change in academic outcomes in a century and that there was an increasing shortage of teachers with many of the school system’s problems tied to poverty, racism, and other injustices.

Since then TFA has enlisted more than 50,000 corps members and reached more than 5 million students in the U.S.

TFA-Memphis has grown from 50 charter corps members in 2006 to a projected 260 teachers in either their first or second year for the 2016-2017 school year.

“We are trying to bring as many people to the city as possible from all backgrounds who believe that all children deserve the same opportunities in education and are willing to work very hard to achieve that,” Sylvia Saracino Koodrich, Managing Director of Development and Public Affairs for TFA-Memphis, said.

Saracino Koodrich believes the reason for the increase in numbers is obvious.

“Our teachers tell the Memphis story, and it is very compelling. They put a lot of energy into what they do here, and the team feels a lot of pride for Memphis,” Saracino Koodrich said. “That enthusiasm is translated into changes in the community, and there have been incredible advancements in the city. People are intrigued, and they sign up.”

Adrian Smith was delighted when he found out he was placed in Memphis.

“I was ecstatic about Memphis. It was my No. 1 choice. It’s a high-needs area, and considering all the wonderful things happening in education reform, it’s ripe for change,” Smith, 24, from Bolingbrook, Ill., said.

Smith applied to TFA during his senior year of college where he had switched from studying education to earning a Bachelor of Arts in English. He realized he could circumvent the long process of earning a master’s to become certified to teach through the TFA program.

“It was an alternative route, a more expedient process that provided me with the opportunity to teach and serve in communities that I want to be a part of,” Smith said.

Smith now teaches 10th-grade English at KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School and couldn’t be happier.

“I feel like I’m being a real player in education reform. It’s like a dream come true,” he said.

The program tries to tap into similar passions of its corps members and encourage them to stick around for the long haul once their two-year commitment has been completed.

Many, such as Bailey, have been able to move through the ranks and into leadership positions.
Bailey became an instructional coach for corps members and then helped start KIPP Collegiate High, where he now serves as principal.

“I had a desire to get better and have a bigger impact,” he said.

Other members have initiated programs outside of their schools, such as Memphis Inner City Rugby, which has lead to scholarships for some of the participating students; a book company which serves to incorporate diversity into the Memphis College Prep library; and the College Initiative, which works to prepare students for college by assisting with filling out FAFSA forms and other nuts-and-bolts-type procedures.

“The majority of our corps members stay in Memphis after their two-year commitment and seek to stay in the classroom as teachers and become the best teachers they can or become leaders. They fall in love with it, and we try to make sure they stay connected,” Saracino Koodrich said.

The last complete corps saw a 60 percent retention rate. “We are thrilled that many are committing to Memphis long-term,” Saracino Koodrich said.

She says that sort of retention is one of the most important components to education reform. “It will never be enough to work just inside the classroom. That’s the nature of the system of the injustice these kids are facing. We need as many people in the community working to help solve the problem of education inequality,” she said.

Bailey and Smith see TFA as a good start.

“Teach for America gave me an opportunity to do what I love, which is to teach, lead and serve. That’s what Teach for America is all about,” Smith said.

“It brings in such a diverse group of people with all kinds of experience and backgrounds who all believe that every student deserves the opportunity to succeed and are proving the possible by raising the expectations of students and showing their belief in the students and community and doing whatever it takes to help those students live up to their potential,” Bailey said. “It’s exciting, and it’s energizing.”

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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