FAYETTEVILLE -- A teacher recruitment effort funded by a $10.2 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation has trained nine teachers now working in high-poverty schools, said Tom Smith, co-author of the grant proposal.
It's been a slower-than-anticipated start for the first year of the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity, Smith said.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville-based initiative enlisted 13 for its first teaching group. Expectations include raising that number and taking steps to lower the attrition rate, Smith said. When UA announced the grant in December 2017, the stated goal was to recruit 150 to 200 licensed teachers over three years.
"It's funded for three years, and we likely will extend that, simply because we didn't really gear up that much in year number one. Whether or not it will continue after that will depend upon how successful we've been," Smith, a UA professor and former dean, said.
The academy recruits teachers who already have classroom experience, then has them complete a four-week summer training program on topics "including culturally responsive teaching, self-awareness and biases, integration of data into the classroom, lesson planning and feedback, and learner variability," according to an academy report submitted to the Walton Family Foundation.
Teachers, some recently arrived from out of state, are paid salaries through participating schools who sign on in part to add new teachers to their staffs.
For the teachers, Smith said the program offers a chance to earn a master's degree without having to pay tuition costs, in addition to giving them ongoing support and mentoring from coaches on the academy staff. The two-year master's degree program in educational equity is expected to receive state approval this spring, according to the academy's website.
As a new effort, the academy's first year involved recruiting an executive director and staff, Smith said, with the first hire completed in May. The lack of staffing early on affected recruiting, he said.
"Last year, a large part of our recruitment was with a contractor," Smith said.
He said attrition took place because "it was basically just a bad match" between teacher and school. The program is "always going to have some dropping out," Smith said. But, he added, "we don't want a 30 percent attrition rate."
Smith said "we're kind of learning about some of the characteristics that we need to be searching for" in teacher recruits.
The academy's first executive director, Eric Mayes, began work Dec. 3.
Mayes most recently was a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. At UA, he earns a yearly salary of $200,000, said spokesman Steve Voorhies. Smith said Mayes was hired out of 84 applicants.
The academy's website lists seven staff members, and Smith said there have been two additional teaching coaches hired on top of that. The group includes leaders for recruitment and instruction, Smith said. While Mayes and other administrators are based in Fayetteville, teaching coaches have an office in Little Rock, Smith said, with three coaching positions being filled to expand the subject focus beyond mathematics and language arts.
Having a team in place should make a difference with the next group of recruits, he said.
"What we're looking for this year is more what we would have expected had we been staffed up all the way [in the first year]," Smith said.
Day-to-day leadership duties now fall to Mayes, whose background includes playing football at the University of Michigan. Mayes was a linebacker and co-captain of the 1997 team that went undefeated.
He described humble roots growing up in small-town Michigan, the son of parents from Mississippi and Missouri.
"They both grew up with experiences as sharecroppers. They found themselves up in Michigan as a result of following the harvest," said Mayes, also a UA research associate professor.
He credited his parents and teachers with his success. Mayes earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Michigan, a doctorate in educational psychology from Howard University, and a postdoctoral master's degree in education policy and management from Harvard.
"I've been a classroom teacher. I've worked in schools. I've advocated for educational equity," said Mayes, who at Johns Hopkins was an assistant professor of education with an emphasis in entrepreneurial leadership in education.
In Arkansas -- Mayes said he had not visited before applying for the job -- he said he's made various road trips to meet with school officials, including to Dumas in the state's Delta and other towns in rural areas.
"I see great potential in people and in their communities. I see a great need for additional support and resources, on a multitude of levels," Mayes said.
A main mission for the academy involves helping schools that may not see the same number of applicants for teaching positions as elsewhere in the state, Smith said.
Barbara Garner, assistant superintendent for the Crossett School District, said in an email that it's true that recruiting teachers is difficult.
"We have recruited teachers from Teach for America before with good success, but those candidates are no longer available to us so we thought this could be a good resource for us to recruit teachers," Garner said.
Teach for America, founded in 1990 to attract teachers to low-income communities, had informed Crossett schools that the organization did not have enough people to meet the needs of school districts in southeast Arkansas, Garner said.
"I thought [the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity] was especially good because the candidates already have their teaching license and are working on their master's," Garner said.
Ultimately no new hires resulted for Crossett schools in the 2018-19 school year, Garner said. But she said a teacher already employed by the district is receiving training and working on her master's degree through the program.
Along with the Crossett School District, other school participants in 2018-19 have been: El Dorado School District, Exalt Academy of Southwest Little Rock, Helena-West Helena School District, KIPP Delta Public Schools and Lee County School District, according to the report submitted to the Walton Family Foundation.
In Crossett Middle School, 65 percent of the 478 students in 2018-19 are considered low-income, according to state data, a percentage based on students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
In 2018-19, a four-person household with an annual income of up to $32,630 qualifies for free meals under federal guidelines and with an annual income up to $46,435 qualifies for reduced-price meals.
Molly Kopplin teaches mathematics at Barton Junior High School in El Dorado. The south Arkansas school has 650 students and a poverty rate of 65 percent, according to state data.
Her experience in the academy is "positive and beneficial," she said in an email.
Academy staff members "consistently challenge me to be a better version of myself as a person and as an educator, particularly in making math accessible, creating an inclusive classroom culture, and recognizing and growing my students as they are," Kopplin wrote.
Kopplin, 29, said she moved to Arkansas from Wisconsin, but she worked from 2014-16 as a teacher in Camden through Teach for America.
She said she respected the decisions of former colleagues to leave the program, adding that teacher turnover rates in general are worthy of many studies.
The attrition is not something to ignore, but something that the academy, which she referred to as AAEE, can address, she said.
"Learning is seeing where you can improve and then doing so, and I have no doubt that the AAEE will take this as an opportunity to better itself," Kopplin said.
One recruit out of the 13-person initial group "was dismissed from the program due to a failure to meet Academy expectations," according to the academy report, which listed a due date to the Walton Family Foundation of Oct. 1, 2018. In August, UA announced that 12 teachers had completed the summer training program.
Another teacher resigned, the report states. While the report stated that 11 teachers were in the program, Smith said the number is now nine. Those who left "self-selected to exit the program," he said, adding that there's an effort by Mayes to follow up with the former academy teachers.
Along with Mayes and the staff, there is now an advisory committee of "public school folks" that met for the first time in December, Smith said.
For any future teaching recruit, "I think we're looking for someone who's, number one, committed to working and living in a high-need school district. And that's not always an easy task," Smith said. Mayes said he wants to "prepare them for the communities they serve."
Smith said the entire effort ultimately will be judged on student outcomes, such as achievement test scores, passing rates and the number of behavioral referrals.
"We're really committed to making a difference, and we think that we're on the right track. It's pretty exciting that we're trying some different things," Smith said.
Metro on 02/10/2019
Print Headline: In first year of Arkansas teacher-recruitment program, only 9 at work in poor schools