- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - In years past, the Homedale School District “made do” when it came to finding enough teachers to lead its classrooms, said Superintendent Rob Sauer.

“We were always able to fill open positions, but usually not until a couple of days - sometimes even one day - before school started,” he said.

This year, the alternative teacher certification program, Teach for America, is helping to fill the gap.

For more than 25 years, Teach for America has placed beginning teachers in high-need urban and rural schools that struggle to recruit instructors. But the program is just getting started in Idaho. The first group of 14 Teach for America educators began teaching in the Homedale, Nampa and Caldwell school districts last fall. Results are positive so far, say district leaders.

The teachers, who have two-year, nonbinding commitments to the program, come from across the U.S. They receive training from Teach for America then begin in the classroom with an interim certification. They have two years to complete the requirements for permanent certification.

The program doesn’t guarantee job placement. Teach for America teachers go through the interview process like anyone else.

“If the Teach for America candidates don’t rise to the top, they don’t rise to the top,” Sauer said. “In this situation, the two candidates we hired happened to be the right choice for us.”

Sticking near home

Rebecca Alamilla, one of Homedale’s two Teach for America recruits, was born and raised in the Treasure Valley. Her husband, Salvador, is a chef at Whole Foods and has roots in Homedale. Many of her family members also work at schools in the Homedale district.

She comes to her fifth-grade classroom with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a minor in Latin American and Latino studies, along with classwork in psychology and health care, and experience working as an interpreter at the Ada County Courthouse and for an immigration law firm. Being the mother of a Latino child - Naya is 3 - made Alamilla start thinking about her daughter’s educational opportunities, she said.

“A lot of the Latino community is living in areas of high poverty. Anytime you look at areas with a large number of impoverished families, there are fewer resources and lower budgets for schools,” Alamilla said.

Teach for America appealed to her, she said, because of its emphasis on social justice and its mission to curb inequities in public education. She’s benefited from the five-week training program that all teachers complete, as well as ongoing education and mentoring through the program during the year, she said. In addition to the regular teacher’s salary, the program offers a $5,500 annual education stipend. Alamilla is using hers to get a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.

“To be an effective teacher, it’s not just about knowing the pedagogy,” she said. She’s already used her skills in counseling, translating and even health care in her classroom. Her experience and her ties to the community might help dispel one myth about Teach for America - that teachers are inexperienced, transplanted graduates from elite institutions with more idealism than know-how.

“Over half of our teachers identify as coming from a low-income background,” said Tony Ashton, who runs the Teach for America program in Idaho. “Two-thirds of our teachers or corps members are the first in their families to graduate from college.”

Part of a solution

Ashton, a Utah native and former math teacher, lived on the East Coast for many years. He started working with Teach for America in 2001. Moving his family from Massachusetts to Idaho a year and a half ago to establish the program in the Gem State, he said, felt “like coming home.”

“Our work in Idaho, from a broad perspective, is like work everywhere else. We want to be part of the movement to eliminate inequity,” Ashton said.

That inequity is present in low-income and Latino students in Idaho, he said - noting results from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress report that found this state in last place when looking at math achievement of Latino students in fourth grade. The need to close the gap is urgent, given that Idaho’s Latino population is projected to be the fastest-growing portion of the state’s student population. That urgency drew Teach for America to the state now.

“Of course, we know that thousands of teachers have been working on this before we got here. I don’t see us as having all the answers. But we believe we can be part of it,” said Ashton.

Teach for America has attracted its share of controversy. Penni Cyr - president of the Idaho Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union - sees alternative certification programs as an “end run around providing properly trained, high-quality teachers in Idaho classrooms.”

The IEA understands the difficulties some districts have in attracting and retaining teachers, said Cyr. But programs such as Teach for America are a “quick fix” that conflict with the organization’s effort to increase state funding for education, she said.

“Teaching can be a difficult, time-consuming, stressful job for even the best professional educators,” she said. “Putting underqualified people in these positions does a major disservice to both the students who rely on having a top-notch teacher and to the individuals who have made the commitment to getting the appropriate training and certification.”

Ashton said he’s encountered mostly curiosity and some caution about the program in Idaho.

“Because we’re new. But judge us on the work that we do,” he said.

Deepening the pool in Caldwell

Like the Homedale district, the Caldwell district has a hard time filling teaching positions. Another issue, said Superintendent Jodie Mills, is keeping qualified teachers in the district when neighboring districts offer higher wages. During the 2014-2015 school year, the district had to replace 77 of its 350 teachers because of departures and retirements.

Falling numbers of applicants exacerbate that problem. In the recent past, the district typically fielded between 20 and 50 applications from prospective teachers each year. That’s not the case today, said Mills. She remains impressed by the quality of applicants - she’s just distressed that there are so few of them.

“We’re losing more teachers than we have in the pipeline,” she said.

Teach for America has helped mitigate that in Caldwell, which has 6,200 students, 26 percent of whom speak English as a second language. The district also works with other alternative certification programs, including the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.

“Traditionalists believe the only way to be certified ‘is the way I did it,’” Mills said.

“There are other avenues that for some reason don’t get pushback like Teach for America does. It’s really more of a misunderstanding when it comes to seeing Teach for America as a great opportunity. … We still go after the best candidates, whether they come from a traditional program or not.”

Carly Manhart, a University of Idaho graduate from Wallace, teaches business technology at Caldwell High School. Unlike the typical Teach for America instructor, Manhart came to the program already certified in the subjects she teaches. She applied for the program anyway, she said, because she knew she wanted “to be someone who could make a difference.”

Her main inspiration was her high school graphic design teacher, who urged Manhart to go to college and pursue a degree, something Manhart hadn’t planned on. After joining Teach for America, Manhart had a teaching job lined up in Ohio. But when Idaho started its own program, she decided to stay and work here. She now teaches 180 students each day in Caldwell.

“Idaho needs me a lot more than Ohio does,” said Manhart.

During college, she saw several people who had studied education leave the field after learning what teaching is really like. Now, she has the opposite experience, and said she trusts the motivation she sees in her Teach for America peers.

“Teaching is hard, but it’s fulfilling, getting to know students and see them become motivated,” Manhart said. “So many of my students have already said they want to go to college and study Web design. Like me, these were students who hadn’t intended to go to college at all.”

New partnerships

The six Teach for America teachers in the Nampa School District are spread across elementary, middle and high school levels, teaching special education, science, math and English language arts. The district has faced similar challenges as Caldwell and Homedale when it comes to finding teachers and keeping them, said Superintendent David Peterson. When finances caused the district to add 14 furlough days to its calendar in 2013, a quarter of its teachers left.

Peterson said he understands the criticism of alternative certification programs. “But these are people with college degrees, good in their fields, respected. They’re student leaders and good learners,” he said.

He’s impressed with Teach for America’s support structure that offers ongoing training. The district - the third-largest in the state, with around 15,000 students, 60 percent of them eligible for free and reduced lunch - is developing a partnership with Teach for America. Beginning teachers who aren’t affiliated with the program will still be able to participate in its training at no charge to the district.

“For new teachers, no matter how much schooling they got, when they get their own classroom it’s a different gig. We have a mentoring program that’s working well, but we are always looking for ways to strengthen the experience of our teachers in their first through third years,” Peterson said.

“We have teachers who get alternative certification with far less preparation than Teach for America offers.”

Teach for America’s Idaho office is in the midst of welcoming its incoming group of teachers, said Ashton, the state coordinator. He expects between 15 and 20 more teachers to join the Idaho program in the 2016-2017 school year.

“More than anything, we want people to know how grateful we are to be a part of the community and be able to do this work,” he said.

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, https://www.idahostatesman.com

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