two men in baseball hats and shirts and ties talking
Jonathan Howard (New York '06, right) draws on his experience as a Teach For America alum in his current role recruiting teachers for Democracy Prep Public Schools.

From Basketball Recruit at a Top College to Recruiting Top Teachers for a National School Network

When Jonathan Howard's promising hoop dreams didn't pan out, he forged a new career path as one of the most respected teacher recruitment directors in the country.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
basketball player dribbling past defender
Howard traded the hardwood for a whiteboard when he joined Teach For America.

Jonathan Howard (New York ’06) had his life figured out before he set foot on a college campus—or so he thought. As a star shooting guard at Brophy Prep in Phoenix, he was a nationally rated basketball recruit with a bevy of college suitors. Opting to stay close to home, he chose Arizona State University. “I realized I was pretty good at basketball at an early age, and it opened doors for me,” remembers Howard, who once had designs on a career in the pro ranks.

Of course, even the most well-laid plans can fall by the wayside, and when the physical toll of college hoops and a heart condition prematurely derailed Howard’s athletic career, he found his true calling in education. That journey began in 2006, when he joined Teach For America, and continues through his current position as vice president of recruitment at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a national network of open-enrollment, high-performing public charter schools.

At Democracy Prep, 99 percent of students identify as people of color and 85 percent qualify for a free lunch; according to their most recent data, 100 percent of their graduates are admitted to college, and 80 percent are admitted to the most selective colleges.

Howard’s presence has been a crucial element in this success; under his watch, Democracy Prep has recruited teachers from 37 different states, with 25 percent of teachers having at least five years of classroom experience and 43 percent of them identifying as people of color.

“I love my job,” he says. “I get to travel the country and do some of our most crucial work, which is to locate and successfully convince our next group of teachers to come teach in our schools.”

Currently on paternity leave with his third child, Howard carved out some time to speak with us about his experience as a student and his transition from coveted hardwood recruit to esteemed recruiter in the field of education.

You grew up in Glendale, Arizona, but went to a private high school in nearby Phoenix on a partial scholarship. How did that shape your view of the educational system?

I was always a good student, and at my previous schools, I was this top-of-the-class kid. As a result, I had the opportunity to go to Brophy Prep, one of the best high schools in Phoenix.

But I had a rude awakening there as far as the grades I was getting and the level of work I was producing. I remember turning in my first English paper, and having my butt handed to me as far as my teacher’s assessment of my writing ability. But I’ve always worked hard, and thankfully, my teachers worked with me so I could improve.

At Brophy, I began to see how a quality education can provide the access to certain opportunities that my friends back at home in Glendale—especially students of color who went to public schools—didn’t always get. That experience is a huge part of why I decided to join Teach For America.

teachers with students in a group shot
Howard (back row, left) with his co-teachers and students at TFA's summer institute in 2006.

You’re now entering your 10th year with Democracy Prep overall, and eighth as a recruiter. What does the job entail?

I love my job. I get to do some of our most crucial work, which is to recruit and convince the best teachers and leaders in the country to come work in our schools in New York; New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Our teachers and staff have the hardest jobs in the world and we know the success of our kids and our schools depends on the folks standing at the front of their classrooms every day. We put a lot of time and energy to finding and retaining the very best.

What type of teacher is the right fit for Democracy Prep?

My corps experience has a lot to do with how I evaluate whether someone is the right fit. Before I taught at Democracy Prep, I was at another middle school in Harlem that struggled, so I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum. Basically, I’m looking for talented educators who believe strongly in our mission, which is to educate our kids for success in the college of their choice and lives of active citizenship.

A Democracy Prep teacher must be open to feedback. We teach our kids about malleable intelligence; we expect the same out of our teachers. Also, we have a certain model that works for us that some might call rigid, but we believe in maximizing every second of learning time for our students. We have really high expectations for our kids, so we will have high expectations for you as a teacher.

As far as how we recruit teachers, we do it in a variety of ways. We do direct outreach. Great people know other great people, so we do a lot of cultivation of our own staff to get referrals. We actually have a large percentage of TFA alums in our schools.

man in gray shirt sitting at table with laptop
"[T]eachers are not only leaders themselves, but they’re developing students into the leaders of tomorrow," Howard believes.

A lot has been said about the prestige of the teaching profession or working in education as a whole. What is one way your work addresses that?

We value our teachers, so giving them opportunities to grow within their work through professional development is one of the big driving forces behind our success. Sometimes I tell teachers that if you don’t think you’re growing wherever you’re at now, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. At Democracy Prep, you’re going to have someone in your classroom every day, giving you praise and feedback on how to get better.

And from our CEO on down, every decision that gets made at the school level or at the network level is about the kids. We won’t open a school to just open a school. Our students in the communities we serve don’t have time to waste. They can’t afford to have another year of their education wasted by going to a bad school. The urgency behind our work and focus on what’s doing best for kids is paramount to what we do.

What’s one example of your impact that sticks out to you?

Definitely seeing kids over the years who have grown up before my eyes. In fact, our first sixth graders are now seniors in college, and so we’ll have our first college graduating class this year. To see them grow up and succeed in college, that’s why we do this work. They are walking testaments to the collective effort of everyone at Democracy Prep.

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