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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 9, 2006

Hawai'i may gain 50 extra teachers

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

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Teach for America web site

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The prestigious national program Teach For America may soon be launched in Hawai'i, with the hope it will put 50 teachers in hard-to-fill public school classrooms this fall and another 50 a year later to narrow the annual teacher shortage.

"There's a lot of energy behind it and a lot of people who want to make it work," said Gerald Okamoto, assistant superintendent for human resources for the Department of Education.

He called the program "like a Peace Corps for teachers."

DOE officials say there are still hurdles to work out with the union and the attorney general's office, but they call this a chance to add much-needed teachers to the public schools, as well as to attract Hawai'i college graduates back home for a two-year commitment to teach in areas that are generally rural and disadvantaged.

"We have to look at any and all sources of bringing teachers in," Okamoto said. "Teach For America has had a lot of success not only in retaining people, but also for being able to turn the performance around of the students they teach."

Supported by private fund-raising and corporate donations, Teach For America has been operating for more than a decade to help reduce the national teacher shortage, especially in math and science, but also in poor districts. It has sent teachers to 22 regions where education gaps are some of the largest.

The program places college graduates in teaching positions for two years before they head into their original career paths.

According to its Web site, in the past four years Teach for America has attracted an applicant pool that rose from 5,000 in 2001 to 17,000 last year, with many from the nation's top colleges.

Patricia Halagao, an assistant professor in the University of Hawai'i's College of Education, was part of Teach For America. She taught inner-city children in Oakland, Calif., in 1992. She said the program is highly competitive and attracts people interested in social justice.

"You want to see excellence and equity for all children," said Halagao, who went on to earn a master's degree and doctorate in curriculum instruction after her teaching experience. She's been at UH five years.

"I felt I was part of this national movement for social justice," Halagao said. "And I liked the idea of being involved with a civic mission as well as teaching."

'BRINGING KIDS HOME'

Mitch D'Olier, chief executive officer for Kane'ohe Ranch, who is spearheading the project as well as fundraising for it, called the effort "potentially a really incredible thing for Hawai'i.

"Hopefully we bring a lot of Hawai'i kids home with the whole thing," said D'Olier.

Each fall Hawai'i is short anywhere from 400 to 500 teachers, and forced to fill the gap with emergency hires and substitutes. While Teach For America participants will also come in as emergency hires, they'll be tracked through a UH credentialing program that will provide them a master's degree in teaching within the two years if they wish. Another program offers a bachelor's degree in education in less time.

Randy Hitz, dean of the College of Education at UH, has been working with the planners to provide teacher training for the new candidates, but he said that 50 additional teachers this year will stress the UH system unless more professors can be added.

However, he noted that Teach For America provides its own intensive training during the summer so these people will be better prepared than most emergency hires. As well, there's support within the program to make it succeed, he said.

The program assigns applicants to places where they want to go and places where they'll have support, such as family and friends.

"It would make sense to send someone from Hawai'i back home," said Halagao, who is handling liaison with UH for the teacher training portion.

"It's different living on an island and if you already know that, the hope that you stay would be better."

Roger Takabayashi, president of the Hawai'i State Teachers Association, which is working with the DOE and Teach For America to finalize plans, agrees that bringing Hawai'i graduates back would also be good for students.

"Local kids understand the culture of the people of the Islands and this would give them the heads up over others," Takabayashi said.

EARLY RECRUITMENT

While organizers are still working out final details, recruitment is already being launched among graduating college seniors many at top Ivy League colleges on the East Coast. And a Teach For America representative has been giving community talks about the project.

While organizers hope to attract Hawai'i graduates, they also hope to lure some of the other top young college graduates from around the country. Because the program gives prestige to a resume, young people who may want to go on to become lawyers or accountants or engineers may also want to have a few years of community service on their record.

"These individuals are giving up $60,000- and $70,000-a-year jobs to come and teach here as a giveback to the community," Takabayashi said. "And if they really like it, to move anywhere in our salary scale, they would have to move through licensure."

Teacher retention has been a problem across the country. But according to the Teach For America Web site, 64 percent of the people who participate in the program stay in education.

IVY LEAGUE STUDENTS

Last year 8 percent of the Princeton and Harvard graduating classes, 11 percent of the Dartmouth and Amherst College graduating classes, and 12 percent of the Yale and Spelman College graduating classes applied to the program, according to the Web site. Under the terms of the program, graduating seniors from all academic backgrounds are recruited.

"The thing that Teach For America brings is bodies," said Hitz, noting that recruitment has been one of the hardest tasks facing the UH College of Education.

That was a giant plus for this program, according to Carl Takamura, executive director of the Hawai'i Business Roundtable, which has been a strong supporter.

"It's bringing in interested, dedicated and energetic teachers and giving an opportunity to the local kids," Takamura said. "They'll have the opportunity to come home and help their community."

Gov. Linda Lingle has also made the teacher shortage crisis a priority of her administration this year to try to boost the number of teachers produced by the state university system, as well as offering several suggestions for other emergency measures to get more teachers into the classroom.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.