Teach for America makes push for diversity in Charlotte

Teach for America is trying to make its corps of new educators look more like the students they serve.

The organization, which typically recruits top college students to an urban public school system, is pushing to bring more black and Hispanic teachers to classrooms in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Teach for America, in its 10th year in Charlotte, is also working to expand its corps to include professionals who have begun a career in other fields.

“We want to have a group of teachers that reflects our group of students,” said Tim Hurley, executive director of Teach for America’s Charlotte region.

One hundred new recruits are in Charlotte classrooms this year. Another 87 are in their second year.

Teach for America’s Charlotte region says this year’s new crop of teachers is the most diverse they’ve had. Nearly 40 percent are people of color, and 29 percent were the first in their family to graduate college. About 25 percent come from professional backgrounds rather than straight out of college.

Across North Carolina, 18 percent of teachers are people of color, compared with 46 percent of the state’s students.

In CMS, 68 percent of students are nonwhite. About 31 percent of the district’s teachers are people of color.

Teach for America recruits commit to the classroom for two years, are assigned a school and are given extensive training and support. Charlotte is home to about 350 Teach for America alumni, and about 74 percent are still in education, said Hurley.

Their teachers are paid by the district, the same as any other teacher. As a part of AmeriCorps, Teach for America teachers can also get up to $5,600 per year to help pay back student loans.

Teach for America gets $500,000 from CMS, and raises another $4.5 million in the Charlotte region from donors including the foundations for Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Duke Energy .

High demand

Teach for America sometimes gets a bad rap for only being a two-year program, because many teachers leave after that term. But principals generally clamor for their teachers because they’re a known commodity in areas that struggle to recruit.

“You pretty much know what quality teacher you’re getting and the support they’re getting,” said Talla Rittenhouse, who works with the CMS human resources department. “The demand often outweighs the supply.”

The district has admitted between 75 and 100 Teach for America recruits each year since they came to CMS in 2004, she said. They’re only sent to Title I schools, referring to predominantly low-income schools that receive extra support from the federal government.

Rittenhouse said CMS appreciates their efforts because they bring a corps that’s more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the district’s teaching force as a whole.

Vanceto Blyden, 27, is emblematic of both of the new Teach for America focuses.

Blyden, who is black, is in his first year teaching second grade at Hidden Valley Elementary, a school where about half the students are African-American and 99 percent are minority. Nine percent of new Charlotte Teach for America teachers are black men, compared with 2 percent nationally.

Blyden moved to Charlotte from Baltimore only months before, after ending work at a small arts and education organization there. His office in Baltimore was across the street from a Teach for America office, and he got to know the employees there. Before long, they asked him why he wasn’t a teacher.

His first few weeks on the job have proven more difficult than he thought, he said. Some nights, he stays up late grading papers and operates on a few hours of sleep.

But he said just being on campus has started to make a difference.

“So many African-American boys have looked up to me, asking, ‘Is he really a teacher?’ ” Blyden said. “The kids relate to me.”

Tisha Greene, principal at Hidden Valley Elementary, said she has hired Teach for America members periodically in the five years she’s led the school. In general, their performance can vary.

“It really depends on the quality of the teacher. You have really good passionate, energetic, smart Teach for America corps members who love kids, who really are doing what their heart tells them they should be doing, so they’re teaching for all the right reasons,” she said. “And then, of course, you have some who are doing it as a way to pay back their college loans.”

This year, she said, she got her top choices.

“Having a staff that is diverse and that comes from different backgrounds supports us in helping kids achieve,” Greene said.

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