Colorful, large cut out foam letters on and in front of table with a black skirt that spell "We (heart) Houston" at crowded convention hall.

A Silver Anniversary in Houston

Thursday, February 25, 2016

At Teach For America’s 25th Anniversary Summit this month, I was struck by the sheer number of Houston-based alumni in attendance. Nearly 20 percent of our region’s alumni attended the summit—300 people total—and many of them shared their talents and perspectives as speakers and panelists. I also saw more clearly than ever the real power of our community. I couldn’t take more than a few steps without running into an alum from Houston who has shaped my own commitment to education in this city, or whose commitment I’ve been able to influence. At every turn, you could see the unique role that corps members and alumni have played in the broader movement for educational equity in Houston. 

I’m so excited to be returning to my hometown to lead our work as we prepare to celebrate our local 25th anniversary this fall. TFA–Houston’s doors opened in 1991, a year after Teach For America launched. While we weren’t one of the original six locations, our region reflects many facets of TFA’s evolution, from the growing diversity in our corps to an increasing impact in STEM and computer science education—fitting for the city NASA calls home—to a deeper understanding of and practical action toward serving the whole child.

In just the last three years, the proportion of entering Houston corps members who identify as people of color has risen from 58 percent to 67 percent. We’re also seeing a growing number of corps members—15 in our current corps—who were themselves taught by corps members; these are young people who embody our hope for the future of our education system.

We continue to bring in more accomplished and diverse leaders who will thrive in our specific model of preparation and professional development, which combines accelerated pre-service training with robust support in the first two years of teaching. Corps members spend their first few days at the Houston summer institute observing their faculty advisor, and by the second week, they’re getting practical experience teaching, with faculty advisors in the room to provide support and feedback. Once they enter classrooms in the fall, they receive one-on-one support from an instructional coach as well as group support through learning communities both formal and informal.

We’re among a number of TFA regions piloting programs that will help our national organization innovate on our model. These pilots include a pre-service program for incoming corps members accepted as college juniors, who go through courses with our Houston team up to a year before they begin teaching; a program targeted at preparing corps members for early-childhood-education placements; and “Teach Beyond 2,” an initiative to encourage our teachers to stay as a classroom teacher beyond their two- year corps commitment.

In a city like Houston, with its history of dramatic ethnic and cultural transformation, I’m proud of the fact that all of our corps members receive ongoing support in the area of culturally responsive teaching, which values the unique assets of students, families, and communities. We’re committed to placing teachers in campuses and roles with the highest need; for example, less than 5 percent of corps members working in the Houston Independent School District are teaching Advanced Placement classes, and 67 percent teach in a preK-6 classroom. We also place bilingual certified educators in HISD, providing them with specialized support to reach students who are English language learners.

Corps members and alumni are highly sought after by local principals who are in the market for additional teacher candidates. School leaders know that we have a rigorous selection process—which research has shown identifies candidates with characteristics that are more likely to lead to effective teaching in the first year—and they value the two years of professional development and support we give to our new teachers. In fact, 9 out of 10 local principals who work with corps members would hire another if they had a teaching vacancy at their school.

While research on our work in Texas shows our effectiveness—including a 2012 study that found students of corps members had larger gains in middle school math than students of non-TFA novices in schools without any TFA corps members—I’m most convinced of our impact when I spend time with our teachers and students. For example, Caryn Burkholder (Houston ’14), who teaches math at Hamilton Middle School, helped several of her students apply to a summer math  training at Rice University, where they not only learned deeper skills but also connected with community mentors. Sharpstown High School science teacher Sabastian Berry (Houston ’14) started the University Interscholastic League science team at his school, tutoring students on science concepts and advising them on strategies for their district competitions. With Sabastian’s leadership, Sharpstown’s science team earned third place  in their very first competition—and having a science team has sparked student interest in fields like robotics, medicine, and laboratory studies, and even participation in the NASA robotics program.

We’ve found that our HISD corps members persist beyond their two-year commitment at a high rate. I believe an important driver of their persistence is the collaboration among campus administrators, HISD instructional coaches, and our own instructional coaches in support of our beginning teachers. Some 76 percent of local alumni work in education, and 9 out of 10 work in roles impacting education or low-income communities. Our city is home to almost 500 alumni teachers, more than 35 alumni principals, and almost 10 school system leaders.

Where Houston once relied on natural resources such as oil, cattle, and lumber, we’ve transformed into a city whose prosperity is tied to skilled jobs in fields such as computer programming and medicine. The contributions of corps members and alumni will certainly continue to be an important part of raising up Houston students to lead the next transformations our city will experience. Personally, I’m more eager than ever to support the work of our current and future corps members and alumni, get inspired by their optimism and new ideas, and ultimately fuel an even stronger and more determined force of leaders.

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