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When Schools Fail: The Promise of Teacher Corp Programs

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 15 Nov 2011 07:32pm | comments
Mississippi Teacher Corp Teacher Paul McCallister introduces his class to ATP.

When Mississippi schools fail, the state steps in and takes over. Seven school districts are now under state control, or conservatorship,  but critics, including the Mississippi Department of Education, say growth achieved under conservatorship may not be sustainable. In the first installment of our on-going series "When Schools Fail," MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson, reports that North Panola School District is trying to prove the critics wrong.  Their success strategy? Bring in highly qualified teachers - a solution they hope will sustain growth.

McCallister: So what you are look at here, that’s the chemical structure of ATP.

ATP - Adenosine triphosphate. The stuff cellular energy is made of.

MCCallister: It provides energy.  So it’s not making it, it’s providing it.  And the next thing we want to know is what does it look like.

Paul McCallister, a second year Biology teacher, points to a skeletal model of ATP on the board. Oxygen, nitrogen and the rest of ATP's chemical elements are mapped out.   It's technical stuff, but McCallister says students are getting it.

MCCalliser: I know that in the past they haven’t had really structured science classes.  So they are coming in here, so they are doing labs, they are doing fun things.  And they are actually learning in a science class which is something they’ve kind of missed out on a little bit, at least in some of their grades.

Four years ago, the Mississippi Department of Education declared an emergency in the North Panola School district and the state took over.  Test scores showed students were way behind their peers at other districts, sometimes as much as three and four years behind. The superintendent was ousted and the school board's power was frozen. Change became unavoidable.

Edwards: My name is Jamon Edwards. And now I’m in my first year at North Panola High School.

While other districts in conservatorship are wrestling with massive layoffs, consolidation or what may ultimately turn into conversion to a charter school, Edwards has a comparatively simple approach to turning around his school.

Edwards: My philosophy is that good quality teaching takes care of a lot of it. And in the past, one of the things the district struggled with hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers.

North Panola High has only a few new highly qualified teachers, and they are all instructing the subjects on the high school exit exam: Algebra 1, Biology, English II and US History.  How the students perform on these tests is an important factor in what performance label they receive from the state.  So these scores can influence whether or not further state intervention is deemed necessary.

So far, North Panola's test scores and the labels that follow are signaling growth out of conservatorship.  For example, North Panola had a greater percentage of students pass the Biology exit exam than the state average.  Other test scores jumped too, in part thanks to an extra period that is dedicated to test prep. The school as a whole was labeled as Failing only a couple years ago and now touts the label of Successful.

Teaching tested subjects and overseeing the test prep is a big responsibility and at North Panola its one that falls strictly on the shoulders of Mississippi Teacher Corp teachers.

Guest: The Mississippi Teacher Corp is a two year program that recruits non-education majors from across the country to teach in critical needs schools in Mississippi.

Ben Guest oversees the Mississippi Teacher Corp program at the University of Mississippi, and says statewide most of these brand new teachers are placed in tested subject areas. 

Guest: Our impact is typically seen in test scores.  Are teachers are having an impact in those schools and on those children’s lives, but that’s just the drop in the bucket compared to teacher shortages in the state. And compared to what the state and the children in our state need.

And for that reason, teacher corp programs like Mississippi Teacher Corp and Teach for America are often seen as a quick fix rather than a sustainable solution. Guest counts himself amongst the skeptics.

Guest:  The high turnover of teacher corp and TFA teachers is a problem.  That being said, I went through the program myself and at the end of my two years, of the academic teachers that were there, I had the third highest seniority. So the schools we go into, there is an incredible amount of turnover regardless of whether or not those teachers are from an alternate route program.

Which suggests the problems facing schools under conservatorship run deeper than test scores and teacher shortages. Paul McCallister, the corp teacher instructing Biology this year, says the real issues are more abstract…issues like systemic poverty, racial division and generations of rural families being mis-educated.

I mean I do the best I can, but I know I’m only a second year teacher.  So even though people are happy with the results, I want to do better from them.  You just have these expectations that just aren’t really achievable quite yet.

And so North Panola is left taking one step at a time, hoping that the success they have found is not a short-term phenomenon, but real progress that will having staying power well into the future. 

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

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Mississippi Teacher Corp Teacher Paul McCallister introduces his class to ATP.


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