Teach For America Impacts Alabama

Recently featured in the Birmingham News, Teach For America (TFA) teachers are making a remarkable impact in Alabama public schools. Wyatt Smith, TFA history teacher at Birmingham’s Carver High School, is described by a student as someone who “goes out of his way to help us learn.” (Click here for full article, and view TFA’s “Poverty is Not Destiny” video below.)

Smith is just one of 15 TFA teachers in Birmingham, and among the 85 in Alabama who are reaching approximately 5,000 students in the six counties making up the Black Belt region. According to the TFA website, “On average more than 91% of students in our partner school districts are considered low-income, and 88% of the student populations are African American.”

“I believe every child can learn, no matter who they are or where they’re from,” said TFA teacher and Golden Apple Teacher of the Year award recipient, Josh Carpenter. The Golden Apple is awarded each year by CBS affiliate, WAKA in Montgomery, and recognizes teachers in Alabama that have made an “outstanding impact” in the classroom.

Carpenter came to Frances Marion High School two years ago from the TFA program, to teach English and drama, and to coach football and baseball at this Perry County school. TFA’s positive and profound impact on Alabama’s Black Belt has been attributed to such highly motivated and innovative teachers like Carpenter who believe that education is far more than just a path to learn a trade. In his television interview with WAKA he stated, “It’s about building something in this community and in this world that is life-changing, connecting all the parts of your life (to make a difference), … that’s powerful.”

The Education Trust Fund budget recently passed by the Alabama legislature and signed by Gov. Bentley includes continued funding for the TFA program, although it was cut by about $39,000 for FY2013. J.W. Carpenter, the executive director of Alabama’s office for TFA, said that this funding “gives the Black Belt districts access to a highly selective pool of teachers, especially in Math and Science, and partnership with an organization with a strong track record for results.”

The state funding is used to supplement the cost of teacher recruitment and professional development. TFA also raises local, private-sector money annually amounting to about $3,000 per teacher.

“Without the state funding,” said J.W. Carpenter, “we would have to significantly scale back our efforts in the Black Belt due to the lack of private financial resources there.”

More than 48,000 individuals applied for the 2011 class of TFA, of which only 11 percent were accepted. One of the most sought-after qualifications, according to TFA, is a sincere passion and commitment to set high expectations for student achievement in low-income communities, and “to give everything they have in the classroom,” supporting students to meet these expectations.

In 2011, Harvard released an independent study that is among the first to detect a relationship between teacher characteristics and student success, which supports the theory that the teacher can make a significant impact on student learning in any environment.

The seven competencies TFA uses to evaluate candidates include; prior achievement, leadership, perseverance, critical thinking ability, organizational ability, motivational ability, respect for others, and commitment to the TFA mission. In addition to demonstrating all of these competencies, several current teachers like Carpenter are native Alabamians. Carpenter is from Florence, a graduate of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and a Rhodes Scholar.

Another notable TFA teacher working in the poverty-burdened Black Belt region include Dan Sheehan, who also teaches at Francis Marion High School. He partnered with a veteran teacher to establish a robotics team, which placed fifth out of 25 schools at their first competition, according to TFA.

Click here to download the Harvard independent study, Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement: Evidence from Teach For America.

Click here for a map on Alabama TFA teacher placements.