Teach for North Carolina

Dantavious Parker just couldn’t come up with an answer. It was for a question about DNA replication, a review from yesterday’s biology lesson.

Paige Derouin, his sophomore biology teacher at Southeast Halifax High School, hurried over to help.

“Replicate means copy,” Derouin said. “Remember that?” Parker nodded. He did remember.

Moments like this happen countless times during Derouin’s day. All it takes is a little push, just a small reminder, to get students on track.

It took a while for Derouin to learn the right approach, this delicate dance between outright telling students the answer and not giving enough hints. This is her second year as a Teach for America corps member. Last year, she said, it was much harder to lead a classroom of students whose literacy levels range from third grade to just below grade level.

At Southeast Halifax, the race is on for students to grasp what’s required for the End of Course exam in the spring, North Carolina’s standardized testing system that measures student achievement.

In today’s classroom, with Parker’s question answered and the students’ four-question review completed, Derouin called for their attention.

“Today we’re going to talk about chromosomes and learn a lot of new words, so we need extra focus,” she announced.

Behind her, a poster hanging on the classroom wall read:

Our Goal in Biology: 100% above 85%.

Last year in biology, 78 students took the EOC.

32% scored a level of 3, 4, or 5.

32% of 78 is 25 students.

A level 3 is an 85%.

We ALL must work harder to achieve our goal!!!

Paige Derouin helps Dantavious Parker, one of her sophomore biology students, with a question about DNA replication. Photo by Chris Conway

Paige Derouin helps Dantavious Parker, one of her sophomore biology students, with a question about DNA replication. Photo by Chris Conway

Derouin is one of many UNC graduates who join TFA — a program both praised and condemned, supported and rejected.

Every year, hundreds of bright-eyed recruits are thrown into schools plagued with problems that even the most experienced educators struggle to address. North Carolina’s persistent need to maintain the TFA pipeline speaks to a larger problem — that the only way to keep impoverished schools running is to fill the gaps with fresh college graduates on temporary stints.

TFA has long been the largest recruiter at UNC. The program draws more students than Bank of America or Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan — quite an achievement, considering the weight carried by the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Last year, 58 UNC graduates became TFA corps members and were placed across the country to teach in underperforming and poor schools.

TFA has generated a lengthy list of criticisms, and those who work for the program have heard them all. The two-year commitment isn’t nearly enough time for a new teacher to make an impact, some say, and most teachers leave after their contract ends. Placing majority white teachers in predominantly minority districts raises questions of race and class, others add.

Yet for struggling schools such as where Derouin teaches, TFA matters a lot. Derouin believes if her school didn’t employ its seven corps members, then it would close due to a short supply. It’s hard to attract teachers to spend their entire careers at schools like Southeast Halifax.

“Without TFA placing teachers in Halifax, we wouldn’t be able to have a school,” Derouin said. “Even though it is in some cases a short term solution, it’s better than no solution at all.”

Standardized test scores were so low in Halifax County that a Superior Court judge ordered the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to intervene in the county’s three school systems. Now, it's every school's goal for all students to receive 85 percent or higher on the state's standardized exams. Photo by Chris Conway

Standardized test scores were so low in Halifax County that a Superior Court judge ordered the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to intervene in the county’s three school systems. Now, it’s every school’s goal for all students to receive 85 percent or higher on the state’s standardized exams. Photo by Chris Conway

Framed by vast fields of cotton and tobacco, Halifax County is a rural wasteland. The newest-looking building is a grimy Hardees. Blighted, broken-down homes with sagging front porches stand beside crumbling sidewalks.

Southeast Halifax is haphazardly located off the side of a lonely highway, almost like an afterthought. Drive too fast, and you’ll miss the turn.

The county’s average income is $31,614, nearly $15,000 below the state average. Twenty-five percent of residents live below the poverty level.

At the high school, 100 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch. The racial makeup of the student body is 99 percent African-American.

Halifax County Schools have historically been the lowest-performing in the state. A few years ago, standardized test scores were so low that a Superior Court judge ordered the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to intervene in the county’s three school systems.

Now, it’s all about raising scores. “85 percent” is Southeast’s mantra. It’s posted in classrooms, hangs from beams in hallways.

“There is a high percentage of students who are not pushed at home, and it’s not a priority at times,” Derouin said. “Our parents have a lot of things going on. It’s a multidimensional problem.”

A lack of parental involvement is a huge obstacle the school faces, Derouin said. Last year, it hosted an “EOC night” for all parents to come and have conferences with teachers, gathering information about study tips as their children were preparing to take the exams. Teachers personally called the parents of all their students, and more than 100 were invited.

One parent showed up.

UNC graduate Zach De La Rosa never considered joining TFA until the program began its annual campus recruitment sweep. De La Rosa met with several campus representatives during the fall of 2011. Their conversations about social inequalities in public schools convinced De La Rosa that he had found his post-grad public service mission.

He was sent to teach algebra and geometry at Roma High School, which runs adjacent to the Texas-Mexico border in one of the poorest counties in the state.

“We had wonderful families that created a wonderful community but in a very hard situation, both as a result of border violence and poverty,” De La Rosa said. “And so a lot of the students didn’t have tremendous opportunities throughout their lives.”

In the 25 years since TFA began in 1989, it has enlisted more than 47,000 graduates from across the United States to commit two years of teaching in some of the country’s neediest schools.

In North Carolina, there are now more than 400 corps members in 18 districts spread out in Charlotte, Greensboro and the Eastern region. And that number is growing at an astonishing rate: In the past 10 years, the number of corps has grown from 108 in 2004, when it started in the state, to 424 today. That’s an increase of more than 290 percent.

The program depends on UNC to keep that steady stream of recruits running. UNC has consistently ranked among the top five large universities contributing to the program nationwide. Fewer than half of applicants from the University are selected.

A strong commitment to service among students is what draws recruiters to the University, said Aarti Sharma, a TFA recruitment leader. “UNC students are highly competitive, extremely intelligent and very aware of the world around them in terms of inequality,” she said.

TFA’s chief recruitment strategy is personalization. From one-on-one meetings with corps alumni over coffee to a constant stream of emails leading with a bold statement, the program tries to reach as many students as possible. And it unabashedly caters to the University’s culture of positivity.

One recruitment email leads with the line: “Imagine what our country could be if an excellent education were a universal truth instead of a privilege.” It plays off the program’s mission that one day, every child in poverty will receive a quality education.

Its promotional videos depict utopic classrooms where students and teachers are joined in a mutual love of education. In one video, a corps member is shown staring into a sunrise as a crescendo of music intensifies. Another teacher is embraced by joyful students in a group hug. It’s an uncomplicated, three-minute snapshot of what TFA says is its impact.

Cynicism aside, TFA pushes hard for recruits to get on board. And it’s working.

Photo by Chris Conway

Photo by Chris Conway

The success of TFA is often measured in test scores.

A 2010 study from UNC compared the effects on student achievement of teachers from education undergraduate programs with teacher trained in other systems, including TFA.

At every grade level and subject studied, students taught by TFA corps members scored slightly better than traditionally prepared UNC graduates, the study said. That’s an accomplishment considering that the only training TFAs get comes from “The Institute” — a five-week boot camp where recruits get an introduction to teaching in a mock classroom.

The study went as far as to suggest UNC education programs adopt certain aspects of TFA, such as selecting students based on perseverance and leadership skills and intensive mentorship during teachers’ first year.

Yet compared with the total number of teachers nationwide, TFA corp members make up a “vanishingly small percentage,” said UNC School of Education professor Eric Houck. Indeed, only 3 percent of teachers in North Carolina come from TFA. Houck believes any prolonged fights about the program’s effectiveness don’t make any progress in solving larger problems in education.

It helps that TFA has the North Carolina General Assembly in its corner. Based on past decisions, the General Assembly favors supporting TFA over traditional scholarship programs, such as N.C. Teaching Fellows. It’s clear that a conflict of ideology lurks behind the political battles over public education funding.

In 2013, the General Assembly increased TFA’s funding to $6 million per year. That money has been used to increase the program’s presence in the Southeastern region of the state and to support a new program, “Teach Back Home,” to recruit candidates who are residents of North Carolina.

Just two years earlier, the state legislature voted to eliminate the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, which was once considered the most ambitious teacher recruitment system in the country. It provided four-year scholarship loans to high school seniors interested in teaching in public schools in the state. After four years of teaching, the loans were forgiven.

That decision, said Robert Smith, an education professor at UNC-Wilmington, represents the General Assembly’s overall attitude toward education — one that views teaching as a short-term service instead of a professional, lifelong commitment.

“Removing the funds for Teaching Fellows seems to give the message that attracting the best and brightest into teaching isn’t a priority,” Smith said. “We’re no longer willing to put money aside to provide scholarships for our best and brightest.

“We would not propose a quick alternative to being a doctor or lawyer or architect, but in teaching that’s seen as something desirable.”

Last year, Smith and another UNCW professor conducted a study of 630 North Carolina teachers and administrators about their attitudes to the broad education reforms passed by the General Assembly. More than 60 percent of respondents indicated that they believe allocating state funds for TFA will have a negative impact on public education in the state.

What those effects might be are unsaid, but some teachers surveyed expressed an aggressive attitude toward TFA.

“I’m tired of being bullied and threatened as poverty tourists from Teach for America come in to praise and with no training,” one teacher said in the survey.

Another added, “I learned so much in my master’s program! If the economy was better, Teach for America would have no applicants because all these kids do is apply for their resumes. In the meantime just try to find a good math or science teacher who wants to teach here.”

Sometimes the most hostility cast toward TFA comes from traditionally-trained teachers. The Urban Teacher Education Consortium, a national group of teachers who are dedicated to developing strong preparation programs, released a statement last year that blasts some alternative teacher prep programs. TFA is not mentioned by name, but it’s alluded to.

A section reads, “We must push back against the misguided and dangerous belief that a new generation of teachers can emerge spontaneously.”

Paige Derouin jokes with a student as she hands back an assignment. Photo by Chris Conway

Paige Derouin jokes with a student as she hands back an assignment. Photo by Chris Conway

Derouin races around her classroom with remarkable finesse. She crouches by desks to answer questions and hands out lottery tickets as a reward for participation. You never see her standing still for more than a few minutes.

Her students chirp “Miss D! Miss D!” incessantly, eager to get her attention. During lulls, the students flirt in that clumsy high school way and hide cell phones under desks to text in secret. But these transgressions rarely get past Derouin. When the teacher scuttles to the board to reiterate a point, she has their attention. She has found a way to make students — even those used to being passed along year after year — care.

A few years ago, a widely watched documentary about the failings of public education was released, titled “Waiting for Superman.” Its premise: Give low-income kids an opportunity to get a quality education, and they’ll succeed. But the problem is finding a way to give those kids a chance.

As long as North Carolina continues to fail to send teachers to struggling schools and keep them there, then the long-term problems in poor districts will persist. Students will continue to be shuttled through grades underserved, and exasperated teachers will leave after a few years.

And TFA is left to fill in the holes.

But today, in classroom 267 at Southeast Halifax, there’s no time to dwell on things like standardized tests and public funding and proper pedagogy. There’s a lesson about chromosomes to be learned.

Deroin instructs students to draw examples of cells. Forty-six chromosomes, then 23.

“So many Xs oh my god,” the boy named Dantavious exclaims, always the class clown. “I’m gonna go home and dream about the Xs.”

A shrill bell releases students from their science duties, and they clamour to the cafeteria, already thinking about things other than diploids and asexual organisms.

Another day closer to the exam.