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Teach For America still coming to W.Va., but impact may be limited

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Teach For America still coming to W.Va., but impact may be limited 
By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter, WV Gazette-Mail

Teach For America plans to begin providing teachers to West Virginia in August, but the organization will start with only five to 15 educators total in three southern counties, a number expected to grow to only about 30-35 within the next five years.

That’s according to Will Nash, head of Teach For America Appalachia, the part of the national organization that currently just includes Kentucky but will add the Mountain State.

“We’re not looking statewide,” said Nash, who noted the group is currently planning to enter only McDowell, Mingo and Logan counties. “… Teach For America is not going to solve the larger crisis in West Virginia. We are just one tool that the districts can use.”

According to its website, Teach For America generally accepts college graduates — including those without education degrees — trains them for more than a month and gives them a one- to two-week regional orientation before placing them in struggling schools.

Those in the program make a two-year commitment to teach, and are paid as full-time, beginning teachers.

Around the start of this school year, the state Department of Education asked counties to report the number of teaching positions for which they had no “highly qualified” teacher, according to department spokeswoman Kristin Anderson.

Forty-eight of the state’s 55 counties responded, noting 664 positions with no highly qualified teacher — though Anderson wrote in an email that counties were still filling positions at the beginning of the school year, so that number is expected to “decrease significantly” when the final personnel report is likely published next month.

She said positions with no highly qualified teacher could currently be filled with retired teachers; substitutes; individuals who have earned non-teaching bachelor’s degrees but are enrolled in teacher preparation programs; and teachers who are teaching outside their trained subject areas but are simultaneously working to earn certification endorsements for the new subjects.

In September, the state Board of Education approved Policy 5901, which Anderson said establishes a new process for counties to develop alternative teacher education programs, following up on a state law passed earlier this year to further such programs.

Though she said the state school board doesn’t expect to accept proposals until January, Anderson said school systems will be able to propose offering alternative education programs in partnership with one of four entities: the education department itself, one of the state’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies, a college or “an entity affiliated with higher education.” Anderson said Teach For America can be part of counties’ alternative education programs through partnering with one of those organizations.

Nash said the organization could possibly partner with the Southern West Virginia RESAs, an in-state college or Delta State University, in Cleveland, Mississippi, which the organization already works with.

He said West Virginia’s policy requires Teach For America educators to, after they start their positions, continue receiving training in areas like special education and literacy instruction, and the partner organization would have to offer that professional development.

He said Teach For America already requires continuing professional development atop the roughly seven weeks of training it requires for applicants before they begin teaching.

Kanawha County school board member Becky Jordon urged the state school board earlier this month to move forward with allowing Teach For America.

She said her daughter attended Virginia’s Washington and Lee University and got into five law schools before joining the program, which sent her to Miami-Dade County in Florida. She said her daughter has now been teaching math at Piedmont Elementary for five years.

Jordon said that as of Sept. 29, about a month-and-a-half into Kanawha’s school year, Stonewall Jackson Middle, on Charleston’s West Side, had three unfilled math positions.

“That’s sad,” she told state school board members. “But we hold that administration accountable for their test scores when we as leaders of our school system, you and myself, are not providing those kids with a certified teacher in their classrooms.”

Jordon said she’d heard there’s been hesitation to move forward with allowing Teach For America due to opposition from teacher unions, But Nash said he thinks there’s a “false narrative” that the process has stalled.

He said the state school board couldn’t complete its policy development for the alternative education programs in just a matter of days.

Nash said he’s still working to build relationships in Southern West Virginia to bring Teach For America there, allowing the 15-30 West Virginia residents who join the program every year to possibly be placed in their home state, instead of having to go to neighboring Kentucky or farther away.