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Q&A: Victor Wakefield, local head of Teach for America

<p>Victor Wakefield, executive director for Teach for America-Las Vegas Valley, poses in the organization offices at 4040 S. Eastern Ave. on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. (Photo by Bill Hughes)</p>

Victor Wakefield, executive director for Teach for America-Las Vegas Valley, poses in the organization offices at 4040 S. Eastern Ave. on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. (Photo by Bill Hughes)

IN 1990, A CHARTER CORPS of 500 recent college graduates joined Teach For America in what the organization describes as a mission to eliminate educational inequity. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have taught more than 3 million children, especially in low-income communities, during their two-year teaching commitments. The Clark County School District has hired 270 TFA grads this year, more than double the number from 2012.

But TFA is not without critics. The district will pay more than $500,000 for additional training for TFA teachers on top of regular pay and benefits, and some argue that the two-year commitment by TFA teachers contributes to rapid turnover among public school teachers.

We asked TFA-Las Vegas Executive Director Victor Wakefield, whose wife, Alexis Gonzales-Black, is an elected member of the State Board of Education, to explain what TFA does and to respond to critics.

Tell us about yourself. Who is Victor Wakefield, what has he done with Teach For America, and why is he here in Las Vegas?

I fell in love with teaching as a middle school English teacher in Gary, Ind. My students were up against major odds but proved time and time again that they had even greater potential. The experience has informed every professional step I’ve taken since. I worked as a teacher recruiter and admissions officer at TFA and now serve as the executive director of TFA-Las Vegas Valley. I’m here in Las Vegas because my wife and I were sold on the massive need combined with the energy and potential of a community dedicated to making change.

What is TFA and what does it offer the public schools and young people in Southern Nevada?

TFA is working to ensure that every child, regardless of where they’re raised, has access to an excellent education. We recruit and train recent college graduates and career-changers to teach in high-need public schools across the country. Rooted in their firsthand experience as educators in low-income communities, TFA alumni go on to become lifelong leaders in education, inside and outside of the classroom. This is my story and that of 32,000 other alumni nationwide.

Our teachers are effective, diverse, and add critical leadership to the district. This year we received unanimous School Board support to increase our corps size; in an independent survey, 100 percent of our principals said they would recommend hiring TFA teachers; and for the eighth year in a row, one of our teachers was named a New Teacher of the Year. Most of our teachers remain in the classroom beyond their teaching commitment, and others are impacting education as policy-makers, school leaders and from nonprofits.

Is the primary target for TFA candidates high school, middle or elementary schools?

It depends on where we have the greatest need. This year, 74 percent of our incoming teachers are in areas that CCSD HR has called “high need” — meaning secondary math, science, English or special education. We currently have teachers pre-K through 12th grade, and all are placed in high-poverty schools.

College education majors learn volumes about pedagogies, cognition and learning strategies and techniques. Our understanding of TFA hires is that they bring their expertise in a basic field into the classroom. Do they also get the training that traditional education majors receive in teaching? Is that important?

I would argue that effective teacher development is one of the most important priorities for us to get right as a nation. There is no other school-based factor more influential in the learning of a child than the quality of the teacher. We’re very proud of our work, and a growing body of research studies finds our teachers highly effective, but we’re all about getting better because that’s what our students need.

At TFA we use a three-part approach, including selective recruitment, intensive training and ongoing professional development. We carefully screen applicants to identify candidates with the strengths necessary to succeed in the classroom, including leadership, perseverance and achievement. Our pre-service training involves attending a summer-long training program, where corps members learn about their community, become familiar with TFA and the support we provide, and attend an intensive five-week training institute before setting up their classrooms in their communities. Once in the classroom, corps members receive ongoing support and professional development from an instructional coach on our regional TFA staff, and here in Las Vegas they also enroll in the UNLV certification and master’s program while teaching, where they get the pedagogy and methods courses.

According to your website, TFA arrived in Las Vegas in 2004 with 50 teachers. This year, there will be 270. How and why has the number of TFA teachers grown over the last nine years?

The number of teachers we recruit and train reflects the demand from the community — from principals and district leaders desiring corps members and community members investing the financial resources necessary for recruitment and training. Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky recently said that hiring new teachers is one of the district’s top priorities, and we’ve been asked to play a larger role. Yet, even as we’ve grown, we are still far from reaching the demand from our schools and parents.

TFA has not been without controversy, especially on a national scale. Some suspect that TFA, which has accepted contributions from conservatives and conservative organizations, is undermining traditional public schools. Is that a goal? Why or why not?

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our goal is that kids have the opportunity to reach their full potential and that our schools have the leadership capacity to ensure they do. TFA corps members and supporters are diverse in every respect. We raise 90 percent of our funds locally to support our LVV corps members.

Is TFA undermining the teachers unions nationally?

No. TFA shares the same goal as teachers’ associations across the country, which is to provide all students with the best education possible and to strengthen the system and profession. We seek to find common ground and collaborate consistently here in Las Vegas.

I understand many local TFA hires decide to join the local teachers union. How would you characterize your relationship with the Clark County Education Association?

TFA and teachers’ unions both want to give students the best opportunities possible. Many of our teachers are union members. One of our alums who is also a union member wrote an op-ed this past May featuring some of his collaboration with the union and his own support for public funding for TFA. Earlier this month, two union leaders facilitated a “lunch and learn” for corps members interested in learning more about the CCEA, and we have a working collaboration around professional development.

One of the main criticisms of TFA hires is that they take funding and jobs away from people who have spent years studying to be professional educators. How do you respond to that concern?

This criticism is unfounded. Our approach is to bring the best possible people into the field, but no one is obligated to hire our teachers. Our teachers apply for open positions in high-need communities based on nonbinding agreements we have made with school districts. The vast majority of our teachers have been selected for hard-to-staff subject areas, including math, science and special education, and our ability to supply these candidates is often the difference between students having an effective and highly qualified educator and a permanent substitute.

Las Vegas and Nevada, it often has been noted, are on the top of every bad list and the bottom of every good list, including educational achievement for our young people. What is or are the biggest problems affecting the achievement of public school students?

Here are my observations: We have a school system and school funding formula that was designed for a completely different time and different set of needs. We have a serious challenge with our human capital pipeline — including recruitment and retention of top, diverse talent, and have not done enough to support and develop our teachers while in the classroom, or effectively identify and promote our most effective leaders. When we compare the achievement of our low-income kids of color to their affluent peers, we have a civil rights crisis on hand. We are not doing enough to address the additional needs of kids coming in behind, or those who are learning English, and can do better to partner effectively with our families to empower their own leadership and agency.

And what are the solutions?

In the communities making the most traction against the problem, there is a community-wide vision for educational excellence and equity and a plan to actualize that vision. CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky understands this and is reorganizing and empowering senior leaders around a set of core beliefs to bolster student achievement. The City of Las Vegas is piloting a set of concentrated interventions in the Downtown Achieves initiative to develop a proof point. Philanthropists are seeking collaborations in order to see nonprofits break out of silos — a good example is the Communities in Schools and TFA partnership that we piloted at Chaparral High School last school year.

When there is clarity of focus and common understanding of the problem and solutions, real change can happen. Consider the community-wide focus that guided legislators to take a stand and invest in our ELL (English Language Learners) learners this past session. Change is possible, and we do have pockets of excellence in our community. We see our role as helping to break silos in education and drive toward a common vision of ensuring that we provide an excellent education for every child.

Charter schools have been promoted by Mayor Goodman and many others in our community and around the country. What is TFA’s position? Are they the panacea to public school problems? Why or why not?

Our goal is to have good schools, and we have no preference toward any one mode of school governance. In Southern Nevada, the focus is on addressing the greatest needs, and 400 teachers, both corps members and alumni, will be in classrooms this fall — with the vast majority teaching in our traditional public schools. We do have a long history of working with innovative and effective charter school systems and are proud that some of the most effective networks, like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of college-preparatory charter schools), were founded by alumni of TFA.

A fundamental question: Is TFA part of an effort to completely change the existing structures of American education, or is it in a supporting role?

Our No. 1 priority is that kids living in poverty have access to an excellent education and can realize the American dream. We are steadfast in our mission to recruit more diverse, talented leaders to expand educational opportunities for high-need students. I don’t know a more important thing to do in supporting our education system improvement than connecting our most underserved kids and schools to high potential leaders.

Nevada’s per-pupil funding for instruction remains among the nation’s lowest. Is it possible to have a world-class public education system without significant increases in funding?

I will push hard against any premise that falls into the trap of the “magic bullet” solution. There are schools with radically different results in the same neighborhoods that receive the same the same amount per pupil. My opinion is we need a cohesive, community-wide plan that inspires confidence and ensures we are improving the system. Then our increased investments will pay off.

Best-case, wishful-thinking scenario: Tell us what our schools could look like in five years and how we can get there.

There is an innovative program founded by two of our alumni in East Las Vegas called SWOT (Scholars Working OverTime). The program includes 125 seventh and eighth-graders who, with the support of their families, a team of teachers, two college interns and a growing number of community partners, have committed to an extended 9 1/2-hour school day built on college-prep expectations and rigorous academic, character and fitness instruction. Families are integral in coordinating out-of-state college trips, monthly family nights and other extension activities. The program’s students, 92 percent of whom identify as people of color, have consistently outperformed their district peers on every state assessment. The founders, Ben Salkowe and Rachel Warbelow, will tell you that the commitment of students and families is the most essential factor in improving outcomes.

In five years we could have dozens of examples of schools like SWOT, putting thousands of kids on a college path who we might today write-off as dropouts. With a dozen examples to learn from we will put to rest the debate over whether or not kids in poverty can achieve at the highest level, and will get down to the hard work of ensuring that all schools are led by a strong leader, have a culture of achievement and love, a team of committed teachers and deliver on our promise to our kids and families.