Teach for America makes mark in Hawaii
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
The tragic death of an inspiring young Wai'anae High School teacher has focused attention on the dozens of people like him who have come to Hawai'i to help kids in some of the state's most disadvantaged areas pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Michael Anderson was among 55 of America's best and brightest chosen to come to Hawai'i in 2006 to spend two years educating students in low-income areas and at underperforming schools. Teach For America has been compared to Peace Corps but it's main purpose is to help close the achievement gap for kids in America who may already have the odds stacked against them. But that isn't all.
"It's important to Teach For America that our teachers not only do great things in the classroom, but that they also become a part of their school and their community," said Jill Baldemor, executive director of Teach For America-Hawai'i.
By all accounts, Anderson did that, not only making sure his students did their best in class, but tutoring them after school, helping them with their problems — transforming their lives, some said. The Notre Dame graduate and Maryland native extended his stay beyond his two-year obligation and even became a member of the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board to help the area he had grown to love.
But he isn't the only one. Today, a total of 120 teachers brought to Hawai'i as part of Teach For America are serving in 35 schools on O'ahu and the Big Island. Of the 44 Teach For America recruits who have completed their two-year commitment, 61 percent decided to stay to teach a third year here.
And they're making a difference.
"There is just so much of an advantage to having them here," said Clarence De Lude, principal of Kamaile Academy. He said he will try to retain as many of the TFA staff as he can after their two-year commitment to the program ends.
Baldemor said what's so special and different about the Teach For America teachers is that they "are all about working relentlessly for the kids."
For Sheri Saluto, a fourth-grade teacher at Kamaile Academy, that meant leading her students to a nearly two-year gain in reading last year. Sarah Park, an eighth-grade math teacher, is doing the same thing at Wheeler Middle School, Baldemor said.
ACTIVE AT SCHOOLS
Other TFA teachers have started such extracurricular activities as robotics clubs and "Saturday school." A former TFA instructor at Campbell High began the school's first advanced placement art history class and then took her students on a trip to France to see the art they studied.
Kamaile Academy has the highest number of Teach For America instructors on the Wai'anae Coast. Of the 34 corps teachers assigned to the coast, 13 are at Kamaile.
They arrived at a school fraught with challenges, including a low-income student population (nearly 85 percent of its student body in 2006-07) and a high percentage of homeless kids.
Those challenges were compounded when Kamaile became a public charter school in the 2007-08 school year and lost half its teachers over concerns about possible loss of benefits in switching from a regular public school. Then-Superintendent of Schools Pat Hamamoto suggested that the school recruit TFA teachers to fill the void.
Since their arrival, De Lude said they've had a positive impact at the school.
"We want to get exceptional yearly progress, not just adequate progress here," he said, referring to the annual progress mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "And quality teachers are the way to go."
Baldemor said that 100 percent of principals surveyed at schools with TFA corps members said they regard such teachers as effective as, if not more effective than, other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement.
Three-fourths of those principals rated Teach For America teachers as "above average" or "much above average."
On Wednesday, Baldemor told the state Senate Committee on Education: "I am not here to say that our teachers are the only great teachers, as there are many, many great educators in our Hawai'i public schools today ... But we provide an alternative route into education for many incredible and highly talented individuals."
Teach For America has been criticized by some because the corps members do not have teaching credentials in the beginning. However, other reformers contend that the fast track is an effective way to attract potential teachers.
The Department of Education must hire hundreds of teachers each year due to retirements and resignations. Nowhere is the need greater than on the Wai'anae Coast, where the teacher turnover has reached 25 percent some years, one of the highest rates in the state.
Mitch D'Olier, president and CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation and chairman of the TFA-Hawai'i advisory board, said Teach For America "is the best human resources organization I have seen in my life.
"These young, energetic and passionate kids who are trying to stamp out educational inequity in Hawai'i are inspiring to be around. They work relentlessly and they have high expectations. And they are supported by an incredible staff."
Anderson was one of Teach For America-Hawaii's most devoted educators.
"He was just beloved," Baldemor said not long after Anderson's death. "He just cared so much for his kids and the community."
Anderson was killed Jan. 29 when he fell some 200 feet while hiking in Mäkaha Valley.
Like Anderson, Chris Robinson, a special education and English teacher at Wai'anae, was among the first wave of Teach For America instructors to arrive in Hawai'i in 2006.
As part of their introduction to Hawai'i, the 55 learned to strip wauke bark to make kapa, ate laulau and taro and sweet potato, and sang in Hawaiian.
But they also were told about the dark side of Hawai'i — about the ice epidemic, homelessness along the coast and the breakdown of families and the role of fathers.
Like Anderson, Robinson embraced the challenge.
"This is my fourth year," said Robinson, who hails from St. Louis. "I'm thinking about staying. I've never experienced such a tight-knit group of people who are here for a singular goal — and that is to see the youth of Wai'anae succeed."
But Robinson said whether he remains in Hawai'i or eventually moves on is less important than the program continuing at the school.
That way, "there will be a sustained flow of really passionate educators who will be willing to dedicate their time to teaching here," he said.