• Teach for America uses local ties to increase impact
     
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    Photos by Robert Cohen and Laurie Skrivan
    (Left: Brittany Packnett with students)
    (Right: Linnel Rucker with students)

    ST. LOUIS • Brittany Packnett knows the fire and spark that can result when enthusiastic college grads or professionals sign up to work in the nation’s most troubled urban schools.

    She says she sees it every day as executive director of Teach for America St. Louis, like on the morning she watched Linnel Rucker lead fourth-graders at Hamilton Elementary School.

    As Rucker’s students — all girls — worked to identify the main idea of a story, Rucker peppered the lesson with reminders that they are smart and beautiful. They smiled as they recited vocabulary and the rules surrounding their activities.

    “Wow,” Packnett said afterward. “That brought tears to my eyes.”

    But she also knows this spark is only part of the equation. For Teach for America to be truly successful in helping to transform troubled schools, it must tackle its weaknesses. And that’s what Packnett, a 29-year-old with deep roots in the city, is trying to do.

    Anyone who knows much about Teach for America is familiar with the criticism that surrounds it.

    The program typically attracts young college grads without education degrees who commit two years to teaching in low-income urban and rural schools. Yet most don’t stay beyond that commitment.

    They arrive filled with energy and idealism. Yet most are white and from affluent backgrounds, and have little in common culturally with most of their students, who are African-American and low-income.

    “People look at it like it’s a club for them to get their loans paid,” said Ray Cummings, vice president of American Federation of Teachers St. Louis. He was referring to the additional cash that corps members get for college loans. Then he lobbed another criticism at the organization. “Our kids need stability,” he said. “The lack of diversity doesn’t look too good in our district.”

    On the latter two issues, Packnett couldn’t agree more.

    An effort is underway to increase the number of minorities in the corps, as well as the number of members who come from a low-income background. A campaign started in November to keep corps members beyond their two years. There’s also an effort to enlist those with strong city ties.

    In many ways, Rucker, an African-American who grew up in poverty near St. Louis Place Park, is the embodiment of those efforts. She’d already been working at Hamilton Elementary for years. She knows what it’s like to walk in her students’ shoes. Her eyes well up when she talks about her passion.

    “I came from this,” she said, as her students read quietly one afternoon. “I came from poverty. I came from a community where the buildings were boarded up. I understand what they’re going through every day when they walk to the bus stop past broken windows.”

    A LIGHTNING ROD

    Twelve years after coming to St. Louis, Teach for America has grown into a formidable player in local urban education with 150 teachers in 69 area schools.

    About 11,000 children in the region attend classes led by the program’s educators.

    Most corps members — 97 of them — work in St. Louis Public Schools. Others are in the Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood school districts, plus charter schools.

    Corps members arrive in classrooms without education degrees. Instead, they complete an intense five-week training program (it becomes seven weeks next summer), and earn certification after completing their two years.

    Corps members are district employees who are paid the same as first- or second-year teachers, and receive Americorps benefits to help cover college debt. Private funds cover training and other support.

    Teach for America arrived in St. Louis at a time when city public schools were suffering from a shortage of qualified teachers in special education, math and science. Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis Public Schools teamed up to to raise $730,000 in private donations and set aside $50,000 in city money to jump-start the program.

    Today, the organization remains a lightning rod among educators. Many veteran teachers argue that corps members lack training needed to be effective. However, research generally backs up the organization’s success.

    Teach for America teachers outperform other St. Louis Public Schools teachers as a group, according to a study by the district’s Accountability Office.

    Using 2010-11 testing data, the study shows that students taught by corps members experienced more academic growth than those taught by district teachers of all levels of experience. The difference in communications arts was slight, the report says, but in math it was significant.

    But the report also points out that district teachers with less than five years experience held a slight edge in communications arts.

    The same report suggests that a group of the district’s teachers who received intense support as part of the St. Louis Plan mentoring program outperformed Teach for America.

    St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams said he’s seen some outstanding corps members, and some who have struggled. On balance, he said, they bring a level of energy and a different perspective that is needed in city schools.

    But the challenge, Adams said, is that “you put a lot of resources into training, and in two years they are gone.”

    A VARIED BACKGROUND

    Packnett is leading the St. Louis corps at a moment of intense discussion about the region’s troubled schools. The situation involving 2,200 students who have transferred out of the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts to higher performing schools has local and state educators looking for an array of solutions.

    Packnett sees her organization as a part of the answer. Teach for America is also looking to expand its reach — possibly into East St. Louis, where years of academic failure prompted a state takeover in 2012.

    Packnett agrees that stability is important. But the perception that Teach for America contributes to instability in schools is a myth, she said.

    Of the 400 or so corps members who have worked in area schools, 65 percent are still involved in education. This includes 110 who remain in the classroom. The rest are principals, district administrators and charter school organizers, or they work for nonprofits devoted to education.

    “We want to tap into their talent in multiple ways,” Packnett said.

    Improving the program is an effort that has Packnett drawing deep from her own background.

    Having grown up in north St. Louis County, she knows the region’s churches, the key civic organizations, the neighborhoods. Having been educated at John Burroughs School and Washington University, she can speak the language of corporate benefactors who helped bring Teach for America to St. Louis 12 years ago and who continue to sustain it.

    The daughter of two civic leaders, she also understands the layers of social and racial history that have contributed to decades of inequities in the region’s public schools.

    Packnett’s father, the late Rev. Ronald Packnett, fought for better educational opportunities for African-Americans as pastor of Central Baptist Church in midtown. Her mother, Gwendolyn Packnett, is an assistant vice chancellor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

    “It is the domino effect that influences everything,” Packnett said of education. “For my father, it was his ticket out of poverty.”

    ‘HOME FOR THEM’

    Packnett stood in the main office of Hamilton Elementary. It was early November. She had just finished briefing the Regional Business Council about her organization’s work this year. And now she and Colette Owens of Teach for America were about to see how two corps members at Hamilton were doing, and what kind of coaching they needed. They asked Principal Starlett Frenchie what she wanted most from her school.

    “Growth,” Frenchie said. “I just want to see student growth.”

    Hamilton Elementary is one of the lowest performing schools in the city. A significant number of its 415 students are homeless or living in poverty.

    “This is not easy work,” Frenchie told Packnett and Owen. “It is not for the faint of heart. I try to make that clear.”

    This was already clear to Rucker, who teaches 29 fourth-graders on the second floor.

    She came to the school 2010 in search of the purpose missing from her corporate job at Bank of America, she said. She began as a long-term substitute teacher. Then she trained to become a positive behavior support specialist. When funding for that position ran dry, Frenchie urged her to apply for Teach for America.

    “She just rocks,” Frenchie said.

    Nationally, just 14 percent of applicants get into the program. Rucker was surprised to be among them. Though she has a master’s degree in business administration, she is not a recent college grad. She’s 49. Yet she already has strong ties to her school and its families — a quality that Packnett and her staff cherish.

    The scene inside Rucker’s classroom was exactly what Packnett and Owen wanted to see that day.

    Twenty-eight girls in the single-gender class watched as a classmate in a white polo shirt walked to the middle of the room. She clutched her piece of paper.

    “Come on Taylor! Do your thing!” Rucker said. “Sum it up in one sentence!”

    Taylor summarized the main idea of a story they had read. “The girl didn’t want to give up her dreams, so Mr. Faulkner helped her not give up on them.”

    The room broke into applause. Sometimes Rucker lets her students wrap up in blankets while they read. To her principal’s chagrin, she even lets them take off their shoes. Making the girls feel safe and loved is crucial, Rucker said. She should know. She remembers growing up in neighborhoods like theirs.

    “I want this to be home for them,” she said. “Because for some, home is not so good of a place.”

    Packnett says classrooms like Rucker’s are the foundation needed to transform struggling schools. Another ingredient: teachers who believe students can achieve despite the odds against them.

    “This is really about a mission and not just a job or a paycheck,” Packnett said.

    Rucker, who will fulfill her Teach for America commitment at the end of the 2014-15 school year, said she’ll remain at Hamilton Elementary as long as St. Louis Public Schools lets her stay.

    “This is it,” Rucker said. “I am home.”

     

      

     
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    Photos by Robert Cohen and Laurie Skrivan