Filling the gaps: How a national education group is seeking to help eastern Kentucky schools

10/24/2016 03:22 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the first 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.

A controversial education program has been operating in eastern Kentucky for five years in an effort to change the narrative in the historically impoverished area.

Teach for America has been around for nearly three decades, but when the program, aimed at creating education equality, came to eastern Kentucky in 2011 some administrators did not know what to expect.

Floyd County Superintendent Dr. Henry Webb has played an integral part in taking Floyd County from one of the worst performing counties in Kentucky, to a model for other schools to emulate. Webb says that while there may have been unanswered questions at first, the partnership with TFA has been a positive one for his schools.

“Obviously we didn’t know much about the program, we didn’t know much about the training, we didn’t know much about, really the professionalism of the entity, so yeah there were some reservations,” Webb explained. “But I can tell you for us the partnership has been really good over the last four to five years.”

However, TFA is not without its critics. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) conducted research on the impact of TFA corps members, and the program as a whole, and came to the conclusion that “[a]t best hiring TFA teachers is a stop-gap measure for some desperate schools that is somewhat better than their other poor options. But even in those cases, the program is a diversion away from truly beneficial policies.”

That study ran counter to what Pure Politics found after speaking with superintendents, administrators and students in three counties using the program in eastern Kentucky.

The two largest counties that TFA serves in Kentucky are Floyd and Knox, with eight corps members serving in Knox County in 2016 and 14 serving in Floyd. Floyd County will be spending more than $30,000 to have TFA corps members in classrooms this school year.

In more urban and suburban areas 14 teachers may not seem like a large number, but for one high school in Knox County, Lynn Camp High School, corps members make up half of their staff.

See end of article for Floyd and Knox Counties breakdown.

Dr. Webb believes that when trying to fill open teaching positions, these corps members are worth every penny.

“I think it’s worth it,” Webb said., “When a school council is sitting there and we send them applicants and there’s literally zero applicants for a position it’s very, very frustrating.”

Cassandra Akers, the principal of Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County, says that her school has gone with unfilled teaching positions for more than a year, and TFA has helped fill those gaps.

“It fulfilled a need that we had had for a long time,” Akers said. “In the years past we did almost a year without a foreign language teacher, we did a year and a half, almost two years, we went without a chemistry / physics teacher. Because there just were no applicants out there in those areas.”

TFA corps members who help fill those positions sometimes receive criticism for taking away local jobs, but Akers said that isn’t the case in her school.

“Initially, I think there may have been a negative connotation of what Teach for America was, and we may have heard, from some people, oh you’ll knock local people out of jobs,” Akers recalls. However, she went on to say that hasn’t been the case.

Authors of a 2014 study believe TFA to be harmful and costly, arguing that since TFA requires only a two year commitment from corps members the turnover of teachers outweighs the benefit of being able to fill hard to fill positions.

“The program is best understood as a weak Band-Aid that sometimes provides some benefits,” according to the study. “But that is recurrently and systematically ripped away and replaced”

Joshua Sparks, the Executive Director of TFA in the Appalachia Region says they’re not trying to hide the two year program, and in eastern Kentucky they encourage alumni to stay.

“In our region, we have situated it, and we know that it’s going to take all types of leaders, it’s going to take both community members, teachers, no matter the program where they come from, for our kids to get an excellent education one day,” Sparks explained. “So when we think about that, a couple of the programs that we’ve started to initiate to encourage and also to develop our alumni to stay two in particular.”

One of the programs is an alumni teacher and empowerment program, which is targeted at members who want to continue to have a “positive and significantly strong impact on kids in this region.”

The schools also work to identify corps members that will fit in their schools.

Principal Cassandra Akers at Betsy Layne High School says that when they are looking for applicants they are looking for a personality type — someone that will fit into their community.

And, as Dr. Webb puts it they will take “will over skill any day.”

International peer reviewed journal, “Critical Education” published research from Georgia State University in 2013, which examined the practices used by TFA, and one of the areas that they critiqued was the training process that corps members undergo before entering a classroom.

The study points to “deregulating entry to teaching” as why TFA is able to recruit and place teachers in low-income hard to staff schools.

“By reducing preparation from 4 years to 5 weeks TFA allows members to explore teaching without investing time or money in a traditional teaching degree that is perceived as less valued,” according to the study.

TFA teachers don’t enter classrooms without any sort of training; while most corps members do not have a traditional background in education they do undergo a six week training process the summer prior to their first year of teaching.

According to fourth year teacher and TFA alumni Luke Glaser from Louisville, and second year TFA teacher Colby Kirk even if a teacher graduated college with a degree in education or if they enter the classroom through a program like TFA, nothing can prepare someone for their first day in the classroom.

“The main difference was that you know we came in with different experience, by virtue of being from a different place. But you know, as far as being a first year teacher I don’t think there’s much difference,” Glaser said.

TFA prepares their teachers with a six week classroom immersion the summer prior to their first year teaching. A process Kirk went through with another teacher who had a PhD in education, and as he recalls it was an intense experience for everyone.

“He went through a traditional education kind of program, and even he saw that the weeks intensive was beneficial in Mississippi,” Kirk recalls about his roommate during TFA training.

Kirk believes that TFA provides a unique opportunity for, as he puts it, a broke 22 year old to make a difference.

“It’s hard to make a difference in community as a broke 22 year old, when you are fresh out of college,” Kirk said. “I couldn’t come home and start a business, there was no avenue for me to come back, there are no jobs here for college graduates, unless you make it yourself. “

Teach for America was established in 1989 as Wendy Kopp’s senior thesis at Princeton University. Kopp’s plan was to address education inequality by bringing high-performing college graduates into low-income areas.

In 1990 Teach for America was a community of 500 serving in five states, six regions, and reached 36,000 students. Today the program is a community of over 50,000, active in 36 states – including Washington D.C. — and has impacted over 10 million students.

Region in Transition

Teach For America came into the Appalachian region in 2011, an area that faces many challenges.

The Appalachian Region in Kentucky was defined by the coal industry for decades, but the surge of other energy sources, compounded with the cost to mine coal in eastern Kentucky led to a decline in the industry.

The Regional Director for TFA in Appalachia, Joshua Sparks, who grew up in eastern Kentucky, acknowledges that the decline in the coal industry has contributed to the challenges eastern Kentucky faces.

“Our main industry, as you know, in eastern Kentucky has declined just very rapidly,” Sparks said, adding that the area is looking forward “ so we are at a point where all of our communities are talking about what is our future.”

As a high school student Sparks says he saw a gulf in education in his own community.

“I was having access to opportunities that my peers, they just weren’t, so at that point I realized education is my passion,” Sparks said.

Sparks is not alone in acknowledging that students who live in eastern Kentucky often do not get equal opportunities as their counterparts in other areas of the state.

TFA teacher Colby Kirk is not only back in his hometown of Inez in Martin County, but he is also teaching a classroom that he use to sit in as a student.

Growing up Kirk says he worked hard to secure a future far from his hometown in eastern Kentucky. Kirk received a scholarship to go to the University of Kentucky and became a finance major, but in his senior year of college something changed.

“The further I got away from home, the more important I realized home was to me,” Kirk said. “And the more people I met people from all around the world, all around the country, the disadvantages I realized that kids in my area had compared to those other students.”

Kirk explains that a lot of students in Appalachia leave high school less prepared for college than their peers from other parts of the state. He said that because of the community’s size that students don’t have access to as many programs, and that affects what they believe is possible.

“We don’t have programs in the arts, like other larger public schools in big cities,” Kirk said. “Our kids don’t see those kind of opportunities, and don’t think things like that are feasible for them.”

Poverty in eastern Kentucky is not new.

In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson launched the war on poverty giving the fight a face in Martin County. More than 50 years later the image some have of eastern Kentucky hasn’t changed much from those black and white photos of LBJ meeting with locals in the 1960’s.

TFA Alum and fourth year teacher Luke Glaser is a math teacher at Hazard High school, growing up in Louisville he saw eastern Kentucky as the black and white photos.

“The general idea of this area, if you haven’t been here before, for kids in the state, is that you know it’s a very poor region that needs our help,” Glaser said.

Glaser admits to having held that same view before a college fellowship program at UK changed the perception for him.

“And every opinion or bias I guess I had about this area was wiped away,” Glaser said of his trip to Whitesburg.

Principal Cassandra Akers, in Floyd County, believes that challenges in schools go beyond the decline of the coal industry and says that education has not been valued in many households.

“I don’t think in the past education has been as valued,” Akers said. But she says that at her school they are trying to break that.

“We push them. We ask them to do things that probably they didn’t think they could do, but they respond well,” Akers continued. “High expectation breeds high output.”

TFA is joining a movement in eastern Kentucky that sees hope. By bringing in passionate people like Glaser, and bringing back hometown minds like Kirk, they are hoping to change the narrative starting in the classroom.

Changing how students view their future, and what they believe is possible is only part of the battle. The other part is changing the narrative around education equality as a whole, or rather expanding it.

Sparks explains that not many people are aware of TFA’s presence in eastern Kentucky, and he attributes it to their location.

“When I think about equal education, one of the biggest things I think is, when we think about rural areas it’s often not talked about frequently,” Sparks said. “At the state level or at the national level, education is usually talked about in more urban centers.”


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