Coming home: The educational ally raising scores, and keeping kids in eastern Ky.

10/25/2016 12:19 PM

Editor’s Note: This is part two in a series of two overview articles on education in Kentucky, and unlikely ally in eastern Kentucky’s push for a path towards more positive outcomes. Part 1 focused on how the program was filling the gaps in eastern Kentucky schools.

Test scores are up in school districts across eastern Kentucky. And while some districts are still classified as “needs improvement,” others, such as Floyd County, are setting the standard for the state ranking in the 98th percentile.

Because there are no studies that directly look at how Teach For America teachers affect test scores in Kentucky schools, TFA cannot be given sole credit for improvements in the Appalachian region, nor do they claim they deserve it.

As Joshua Sparks, the Executive Director for Teach for America in the Appalachia region, explains, it’s not an either or choice.

“Our teachers are just as effective, and in some cases, like math and science, more effective than first year teachers that come out of traditional training programs,” Sparks told Pure Politics. “I don’t say that, to say that it’s a this or that type of scenario, I think it’s going to take all teachers no matter what, working really hard for kids to get a great education in east Kentucky.”

Studies that have been conducted about the effectiveness of TFA teachers versus traditional teachers is mixed, as research published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) points out. NEPC asserts that while TFA reviews appear to be mixed that when looking solely at peer-reviewed research TFA teachers may not be as effective as the program claims.

“A plethora of non-peer-reviewed ‘studies’ or ‘evaluations’ can be found to support any position on the effectiveness of TFA. However, a review of all the peer-reviewed research examining the impact of TFA on student achievement over the past decade clearly shows that TFA teachers are not decidedly or substantially better than non-TFA teachers,” according to the NEPC study.

Administrators and TFA teachers Pure Politics spoke with said what the study found is not totally reflective of their classrooms.

Testing to the top?

Cassandra Akers, the Principal at Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County, believes that there are many factors to consider when it comes to quantifying student achievement. Akers says that progress is more about getting each individual student where they want to go and helping them reach their goals by the time they graduate.

“We are looking to get kids where they want to be by the time they graduate,” Akers said. “I have a spreadsheet on my wall in my office right now with every senior’s name. So our goal is that they all graduate first, and secondly that they are graduating college or career ready, whatever their plan is. That’s what we are doing and I think that’s the most important thing.”

Akers also explained that at Betsy Layne they have changed the method by which they identify honor students.

“Years ago we changed that from just a GPA,” she said. “And now it takes in what they do on their ACT, what they do on their achievement test, their attendance rate, how many AP or dual credit courses they take, whether they pass AP exams. We want a whole rounded picture of what a kid can do.”

While there are no peer reviews on the impact of TFA corps members compared to non-corps members specifically for the Appalachia region, Pure Politics did identify one corps member who played a role in a dramatic change in Hazard.

When fourth year teacher and TFA alum Luke Glaser started at Hazard High School, he was not supposed to be a math teacher. Principal Donald Mobelini watched as Glaser helped students with algebra homework and then got the idea to make the TFA member a math teacher.

Glaser began teaching AP Calculus his second year at Hazard High School and the school went from no students passing the AP Calculus exam to 10 of 15 students passing the test. The students beat the national average on every section of the exam. And on the six free-response questions, those 15 students beat the national average on every single question.

As Glaser puts it, that means even the five students that did not pass the exam contributed to helping beat the national average. Glaser attributes all of the success on the exam back to his students.

“I’m happiest as a teacher when we are working on something very important together,” Glaser said. “So like AP, you know that was a mission students were invested in.”

Seeing students as equal partners in improving educational standards is built into the core of TFA’s mission in eastern Kentucky. Sparks explains that TFA does not see itself as a force working in isolation to “save eastern Kentucky,” but rather as part of a community that is working together.

That idea is one that is shared by many, including second year TFA teacher Colby Kirk in Martin County. Kirk emphasized that TFA focuses on context, and the program is not a group of outsiders trying to play the part of the superhero, but rather helping to fill jobs that might otherwise go unfilled and becoming members of the community.

“We don’t want to come in and say we’re these outsiders trying to save education in eastern Kentucky, because that’s not true,” Kirk said. “We’re trying to come and fulfill jobs that might have gone unfulfilled.”

As Glaser explains, schools are the center of communities in eastern Kentucky.

“It’s not just a high school football game. It’s an event the whole community gets involved in.”

TFA is taking part in projects outside of the classroom to help develop the community as a whole. When Glaser was in his first year of teaching at Hazard High, students approached him about getting a drama program started.

Now in his fourth year, that drama program has grown from a budget of $0 a year to a budget of around $6,000 a year.

It is not just programs inside the school that TFA takes part in. Two former TFA alum started a nonprofit in eastern Kentucky.

Two of the first corps members to come into Kentucky when the program was introduced in 2011 started the Appalachian Global Youth Leadership Summit. The organization takes kids in the region to Honduras every summer to participate in a mission project.

Sparks explains that taking high school students abroad has a significant effect on them, and is an opportunity that is not normally available to students in eastern Kentucky.

“What that means is that these 15 kids are getting an opportunity to travel abroad,” Sparks said. “And most of the time it’s the first time these students are on an airplane.”

All of these factors play a part in the biggest goal of the region, which is creating a future for students in eastern Kentucky. Sparks and second year Kirk both grew up in eastern Kentucky and they hope that the role they are playing in educating students will help encourage kids to come back after college, and create futures there.

“I don’t think you can tell kids what to do. You can only encourage them with their own aspirations. And tying it back to Appalachia, a lot of our kids are close to family, you don’t want to leave this area,” Sparks said. “Now we’re at the point our kids are bright and they want a great future, and so we are at the point of, ok, let’s create that future here for you.”

“Martin County especially, and all of eastern Kentucky they have bright young minds. Every school graduates talented people, a lot of those talented people go off to college, and not very many of them come back” Kirk said. “But I’m trying to inspire them, the idea that they could come back. And by coming back they can make a big difference in a unique way.”

Glaser who has only lived in the Appalachia region for four years does not believe he is qualified to speak on what the region needs in order to “be saved” but rather that the answer lies with the students.

“Here’s what I know. I teach brilliant students, and not like brilliant, like, look what these Appalachian kids are doing, but, brilliant, like I would put them up against anybody,” Glaser said. “You know they are no different. They are just as smart, they are just as driven, and they are just as capable of doing incredible things, so if there is a solution for this area it lies with them.”

High School senior Stacie Fugate is one of Glaser’s students, and she is ready to be a part of that group that provides the solution for her hometown. Fugate is involved in every school activity imaginable, including sports, theater and academic team. Her goal is to get her degree from the University of Kentucky and then help make her home a place where people want to stay.

“Why not make it place they would want to stay? So change that I can’t wait to leave, to why would I ever want to leave,” Fugate said.

This idea is one that her fellow classmates Hannah Whitacker, and Taylor Williams also have.

“I’ve always wanted to come back home. I just feel a very strong connection to Hazard and where I’m from, and I’d love to use whatever knowledge and resources I gain from college elsewhere and better my area in however I’m able,” Whitacker said.

Williams would like to be a math teacher and the reason she wants to teach is to come back home.

“I absolutely want to teach, because I want to come back to Hazard. Hazard is the reason I want to teach, not I’ll just come back to Hazard because I live here.” Williams said.

All three girls say that math is their favorite subject and that their teacher Mr. Glaser has played a part in that. The investment Glaser makes in teaching and helping students helps them learn, they said.

If there is one thing that the Executive Director for Teach for America in the Appalachia Region, Joshua Sparks, would like people to know about the program, it is that they are just a part of the solution.

“The thing I want the state and the country to know about Teach for America is we are not doing that in isolation,” Sparks said. “We are one part of a much greater movement, and we are excited to be a part of that. And not only excited to be a part of that but excited that the impact our teachers can have when they are a part of that.”


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