Teach for America: A local partner in addressing the teacher diversity gap

ByAlvin Abraham (op-ed)

Read the full article at MinnPost.com >

KIPP Minnesota opened its first middle school in 2008 to address the racial and economic achievement gaps in our schools. This fall, we will open our first elementary school, offer support to our first cohort of middle school alums who are heading to college, and make plans for a high school.

We are growing during a teacher shortage thanks to strong local partners, including Teach for America-Twin Cities, which worked with the University of Minnesota to launch the first alternative teacher preparation program in the state. Nearly half of our teachers at KIPP Minnesota are Teach for America corps members or alumni, like me.

Twenty-five years in, Teach for America’s model is well known. It recruits top college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in high-poverty schools and to continue fighting, inside and outside of the classroom, to expand educational opportunity for low-income children.

What does that look like in Minnesota? Seven years since its inception here, more than 300 Teach for America corps members and alumni are working in school settings, and their work is supported by another 300 alumni who provide affordable housing, legal representation, medical care and philanthropy.

Still some question [PDF] whether this approach has a positive impact on our educational community. Evidence indicates that the nonprofit organization has listened to constructive feedback and adapted to meet our regional needs. Most important for my school network is Teach for America’s cultivation of diverse educators.

Today just 4 percent of Minnesota teachers identify as people of color, while our overall student population is 30 percent nonwhite and growing. This means many African-American and Hispanic students will never encounter an education role model of their race or ethnicity, and that white students experience an education system not reflective of the wider world. Research shows this diversity gap contributes to racial imbalances in everything from gifted class enrollments to graduation rates.

But thanks to purposeful recruitment, the Teach for America-Twin Cities corps is the most racially and economically diverse teacher pathway in our region. Half of its corps members identify as people of color or come from a low-income background. Even more – 53 percent – grew up or attended college in Minnesota.

Teach for America is piloting ways to support career educators. Leaders here pioneered the Choose Twin Cities job fair to help Teach for America alumni — who have Minnesota roots but are working out-of-state — to return home to teach or lead schools. The region also offers financial incentives and professional development for third-year teachers and future principals.

I sit on the board of The Collective, one of the newer ways Teach for America supports alumni of color. The Collective provides mentors and training for people of color, with an eye toward building a deep network of partners who are working to expand opportunity for low-income children. More than 5,000 members of The Collective gathered in Washington, D.C., earlier this year during Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit. After more than 15 years in education, I’ve never been in a room so diverse, energized and focused on the hard work of educating children.

All hiring managers in Minnesota know the difficulty of recruiting and retaining talent. Looking for educators is no different. The director of the state superintendent association recently that shortage areas have expanded from specialized areas like math and science to traditionally popular areas like elementary education.

As our elected leaders debate how to address the shortage, Minnesotans should recognize that Teach for America is a part of the solution. It’s growing the number of diverse individuals committed to giving all Twin Cities students the excellent education they deserve. Let’s learn from the nonprofit’s evolution as we look to invest in innovative teacher preparation programs that focus on increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

At KIPP North Star, I see the impact this could make for our students. Most fifth-graders who transfer to us need to make more than a grade level of learning each year to get back on track for high school and college. That’s why we are starting to enroll kindergarteners next fall. We aim to put more students onto a successful path from Day One, and have hired a Teach for America alum to drive that change from the elementary principal’s office.

 Alvin Abraham is the executive director of KIPP Minnesota. He has served as a teacher, assistant principal and principal since completing his Teach for America-Houston commitment in 2004.