Commentary: At 25, a new face for Teach For America
Guest contributor | March 3, 2016
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By Lida Jennings
In many ways, Los Angeles is the birthplace of Teach For America.
It was at University of Southern California 25 years ago that Wendy Kopp gathered 500 idealistic corps members for the very first summer training institute and launched them into teaching positions at high-poverty schools in Los Angeles and across the country.
Today, more than 2,600 teachers and alumni work inside and outside of Los Angeles schools toward our big goal – that one day, all children will have access to an excellent education. Our national footprint is now 50,000 teachers and alumni strong.
The Teach For America model has become familiar. We recruit top college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in hard-to-staff, low-income schools and to go on to fight for educational equity wherever their lives take them. That model has produced countless education leaders, including LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer and UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. Since joining the TFA corps, they have dedicated their lives to public education.
Twenty-five years in, our organization has evolved. While our critics rely, sometimes loudly, on outdated notions of who we are and how we serve, one need only look at the way our corps has changed to see the new face of Teach For America-Los Angeles. We are proud to have one of the most locally connected, diverse and persistent teacher and leadership corps to date.
When we were founded, less than a quarter of our local teaching corps had ties to California. Every year since 2009, our corps has been at least 50 percent locals, surpassing 65 percent for the second time in 2015. These corps members have returned to their home communities or school networks to teach.
In 1990, about 26 percent of our Los Angeles teachers identified as people of color, and our historical average is 42 percent. But times have changed. Our newest cohort is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever – with more than half of our first-year teachers identifying as Latino and over 80 percent identifying as people of color.
While great teachers come from all backgrounds, excellent teachers who share the lived experiences of their students can be powerful role models. Our Los Angeles corps now includes teachers who lived most of their lives as undocumented immigrants, those who are the first in their family to graduate college, and some who were taught – and mentored – by Los Angeles corps members themselves. Their ages range from early 20s to mid-50s, as many people use our accelerated route to change professions later in life.
Once our corps members get into the classroom, they get hooked on the impact they can make for kids. Teaching is the most popular profession among our alumni. About 65 percent of our Los Angeles corps members stay in the classroom beyond two years, and 60 percent of alums work in the education sector in a variety of settings longer term.
Many go on to lead schools as principals, including at more than half of KIPP LA schools, where low-income students are beating the odds. On average, just one in 10 students from low-income communities graduate college. But at KIPP LA, 72 percent of its alumni are persisting in college.
And then there’s Ana Ponce, who joined the Teach For America-Los Angeles corps in 1991 and now leads an eight-school system. In her role as CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy she has demonstrated that campuses comprised almost entirely of English language learners, in some of the poorest and densest neighborhoods of our city, can excel.
When our alumni and corps members work together at the same schools, we see transformational results. Manual Arts High School students with disabilities jumped 71 points on the Academic Performance Index in a year where the special education department was staffed primarily by Teach For America-Los Angeles corps members and alums.
Our alumni run school boards and teachers’ unions, set state and national policies and provide legal and healthcare access to families. Eighty percent work in roles impacting education or low-income communities. We bring people into the civil rights movement of our time and they contribute for the rest of their lives.
Our impact in Los Angeles should only compound. More than 1,000 of our teachers and alumni are under 30 years old. I envision them continuing along a collaborative path with partners like LAUSD, Educators 4 Excellence, Families in Schools and Great Public Schools Now to move educational equity to the next level at district and charter schools alike.
There is still a lot of work to do to reach the day when all children in Los Angeles have access to a quality education; too many students still attend chronically failing schools. But Teach For America has been a part of the fight for the last 25 years, and we will keep driving educational change for as long as it takes.
Lida Jennings is the executive director of Teach For America-Los Angeles. She joined TFA in 2010 with more than 20 years of experience in the higher education and corporate retail sectors, including serving as Assistant Dean at the RAND Corporation and the Director of the full-time MBA Program at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. She is a board member for Endeavor College Prep and a member of the Loyola Marymount Graduate School of Education Board of Visitors.