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When Schools Fail: Hazlehurst, Institutionalizing a Turnover or a Turnaround?

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 04 Jan 2012 07:26am | comments
Hazlehurst Middle School has more Teach for America teachers than any school in the country, but will student achievement improve?

Pulling a poorly performing school back on track often means bringing in new personnel.  And for many failing rural schools that means staffing from alternative teacher programs like Teach for America.  As part of our ongoing series "When Schools Fail," MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson, takes us inside Hazlehurst Middle School - a school that, amidst an academic and behavior turnaround, took on more Teach for America teachers than any school in the country… along with the controversial turnover that goes with it.

Ingram: (in hall) “Jarvis, stand outside of class, Sir.”

Like most Teach for America teachers across the country, Noah Ingram didn’t study or train to become a teacher in college, but learned the basics of the craft in TFA’s 5 weeksummer intensive.  It’s quick training for a quick stay – the commitment is two years.

Ingram: “These two years of my life – I told them, I’m teaching you something for two years- these two years of my life are a complete sacrifice.  24 hours a day I’m a teacher.”

That means prepping lessons at 6:30 in the morning and staying after hours to attend Boy Scout meetings, sports events, and church youth groups.

Ingram: (in hall) "Travis make sure you go to your period.”

Plus using breaks between periods to coach students in the halls, asking them to talk nicely to one another, dress appropriately and move on to class.

Ingram: “Usually I judge weeks by “did this week go well, where they behaved, where they not behaved.”  Last week was the only week I judged “this was a good week: they learned a lot.”

But Ingram's commitment to turning around behavior and academic performance is time sensitive. Only about half of TFA corp. members stay on past their commitment for a third year, and even fewer stay into year four. And that could become a problem. With 28 TFA employees, Hazlehurst has the highest number of Teach for America corps members in the country, making up roughly half of its certified teaching staff.

Ingram: “Is it ideal?  No.  It would be incredible if you entered and taught for 20 years, and that’s the program.”

Principal Pam Franklin says she agrees, but explained it's already difficult to attract long term teachers because of Hazlehurst's rural isolation and its weak academic history.

Franklin: “It does make it more difficult. So when you have organizations like Teach for America that are specifically placing teachers in hard to staff areas, that’s a boon for us.  I can’t say what would have happened if we were challenged to fill that many vacancies.”

About half the teaching positions were open at the end of last school year - which raises the question:  where did all the former teachers go?

(basketball practice nat sound)

At seventh and eighth grade basketball practice, former Hazlehurst teacher Cola Banks says the vacancies came from a combination of factors.  Some teachers were not recommended to return, others quit and still others retired early.

Banks: “Nobody said anything.  They must have been happy we retired.” (laughing)

Gilbertson:  “Really?  Why do you say that?”

Banks: “Nobody said, “Could you stay? Will you stay? Could you help us out?”  They didn’t do that.”

Banks says the relationship isn't entirely severed, and she still helps out with basketball.  Other community members aren't willing to extend a similar olive branch, much to the regret of Principal Franklin.  Franklin, who wasn't around last year for the first of staff changes, says parents have good reason to be skeptical of new staff.  The interim superintendent and principal positions have been revolving doors for the past few years.  Franklin's approach to patching things up and building trust is straight forward: show parents she’s there to stay. 

Franklin: “And show up at PTA meetings. Show up at football and basketball games when I can.  And just make that connection to regain the trust of the parents and the community."

But while that sort of long-term stability is badly needed to build trust and consistency, Franklin can't promise she’ll get that from all her teachers. Some experts warn that corps  programs with short commitments, such as TFA,  institutionalize a revolving door and so are likely to result in inconsistent and unpredictable instruction year to year, leaving students at a disadvantage.

But TFA proponents here are quick to remind the critics, isolated and low-income Hazlehurst Middle School, like so many rural schools nationwide, was already failing and woefully short on teachers.  Something had to be done, and quickly…and Teach for America was available and ready to step into the breach. 

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.

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Hazlehurst Middle School has more Teach for America teachers than any school in the country, but will student achievement improve?


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