This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.
Kait moved out. Kate moved in. Same apartment, same job, same mission: To reach kids at one of New Haven’s toughest schools. Will the new Kate stay?
Kate Renkosiak started work this fall as a new science teacher at Wexler/Grant, a K-8 “turnaround” school in Dixwell. She landed the job through Teach For America (TFA), a leading national not-for-profit that lures talented young people into urban classrooms on a mission to narrow the racial achievement gap.
Kate Renkosiak replaced Kait Shorrock, who was also a TFA recruit. Shorrock was one of 16 TFA corps members to join the New Haven public school system in the fall of 2010. Of those 16, 12 left the public school district after fulfilling their two-year commitment, according to TFA’s statewide director, Nate Snow. Four stuck around at district schools. Six kept teaching at low-income schools outside of New Haven. In the fall of 2010, TFA also placed 15 recruits in Achievement First charter schools; eight of them remain in those schools, he said.
Snow argued that despite TFA’s lower retention rate—which tends to fall far below New Haven’s teacher retention rate of 68 percent after two years—TFA is making strong contributions to city schools and the education field. New Haven school officials agreed: The school board last week approved a contract giving the district the OK to hire up to 26 TFA recruits next school year. The school district pays TFA $2,500 per teacher per year for two years to pay for training and coaching. Click here to read a past story about the district’s partnership with the organization.
In all, there are 46 TFA corps members currently in their first or second year of teaching in New Haven, including the public school district and charter schools, according to Snow.
Renkosiak was one of 11 recruits who joined New Haven’s public school district in the fall.
Shorrock set the bar high for her replacement: In two years, the novice rose to be one of the best teachers in the school, a model for others in behavioral management, according to her principal. Shorrock, of California, bid her kids a tearful goodbye last summer and headed to Spain on a Fulbright scholarship.
Renkosiak, a 22-year-old Chicago native, joined TFA after graduating from Dartmouth College. When she moved to town, she ended up moving into Shorrock’s old apartment in Milford. Kate took over Kait’s classes.
And she got a few words of advice, scrawled onto a poster from the year before.
“Never yell.” Don’t let kids say “shut up.” “Make us work hard,” Shorrock’s kids wrote in a poster to their new science teacher at the end of the year. They even offered a concrete tip to continue Shorrock’s method of throwing around a ball to cold-call kids.
Renkosiak took the advice and plunged into her first year of teaching. She said the year has gone smoothly. There have been no flash floods of the sort that brought Shorrock to the verge of tears in her first week on the job two years prior.
“Students have been relatively well-behaved and respectful,” Renkosiak said. The 8th graders, whom Shorrock taught the year before, have “a sense of what it means to be proud of your work—and where science can take you,” she said. Renkosiak has developed a point system to give kids positive rewards for staying on task.
And she inherited two balls, one of them with Shorrock’s name on it, to toss around for cold-calling.
Renkosiak said she conferred with Shorrock over the summer and has emailed with her in Spain. The outgoing Kait was “a great resource to have ahead of time,” she said.
New Haven Public Schools started working with TFA in 2006. The district hired 15 TFA recruits in 2011 and 11 in 2012. Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli said the district would have liked to hire more but couldn’t find the space. “We feel bad because we really like them. We think they’re doing a great job.” But the TFA recruits didn’t match up with the district’s shortage areas, particularly bilingual education.
Canelli said on balance the teachers are worth hiring even if they stay only two years: “They’re really good. You get two good years out of them. For us, two years is better than no years.”
Over half of TFA teachers leave their initial schools after two years, and over 80 percent leave after three, according to a recent review of research on the subject. Critics argue that’s important not just because the schools have to adjust to turnover, but because teachers tend to improve significantly after their first two years on the job.
Teachers union president Dave Cicarella, whose daughter enrolled in TFA, said TFA teachers in New Haven have made a positive impact.
“Those kids come with great backgrounds and some experiences that our kids don’t have,” he said. “They’ve got educational background, good content knowledge, they’re hard workers.”
“We still have the concern about the retention, but it’s out of our control,” he said.
Of the roughly 450 TFA alumni in the state, over 250 work in education and about 150 are still teaching, according to Snow.
“We need and want more to stay in the classroom long-term, become school role models and continue to have a critical impact on our kids,” TFA’s Snow wrote in an email. However, he argued TFA alumni are making an impact in other ways, too.
About 85 TFA alumni in the New Haven area are “working across a variety of sectors to tackle issues addressing poverty, inequity, and education,” Snow said. One is the principal of Amistad High School. Another works at Squash Haven. Two run an after-school program at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. Another runs All Our Kin.
“We fundamentally believe that educational equity requires a lot of hard work and leadership,” Snow argued. “It must come from individual classrooms and schools, from the larger education system, from those working in other fields addressing poverty and from civic-minded leaders across different sectors. Our aim is to draw on the talents of our country’s emerging leaders to engage in the classroom, the broader education system and in social and economic issues affecting our most vulnerable kids.”
Assistant Superintendent Canelli noted that the district has more luck retaining TFA recruits who are from Connecticut.
As her colleagues left town, Lou Tanyu, who grew up in Stamford, stuck it out in the New Haven public school district. Tanyu served out her two obligatory years in TFA and stayed on for a third. She teaches English language arts at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School.
When she first started teaching, she discovered that some of her students in the 7th and 8th grade were reading at a 2nd-grade level.
“I’d always been told of all these disparities” but she had not previously encountered them firsthand. She faced some “unexpected situations,” like when a student who threw a chair across the room. She said she went through “a huge learning curve” in figuring out the best way to teach her students.
Now she feels she has hit her stride. “After feeling the success I’ve had with my students,” she said, “I’m really happy with where I am.” She’s applying to become a “future leader,” the first step in a new career ladder that could lead to a principal job.
“I definitely see this as a lifelong career,” she said.
Meanwhile, at Domus Academy, a small middle school for troubled kids, two new TFA recruits have replaced outgoing teachers from Shorrock’s TFA class. The school was born in 2010, when the school district tapped a Stamford-based social services agency to take over a failing school. Domus argued that TFA teachers, who tend to be highly educated, bright and hard-working, are worth the investment even if they leave after two years.
Domus Academy hired five rookie TFA teachers its first year. All have left the school. Reached Tuesday, Tyrone Mayorga said he’s working at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, en route to becoming a dentist. Three of his TFA cohort from Domus stayed in teaching, according to former director of curriculum Richard Cheng.
Cheng, a TFA alum, spoke by phone from Philadelphia, where he’s in business school. A star teacher at Domus, Cheng fulfilled his two-year TFA commitment at one of Domus’ Stamford schools, then helped Domus open its New Haven school. Just two years out of college, he coached new TFA recruits and took on many responsibilities of a vice-principal. Click on the play arrow to watch him command a “silent class” when he substitute-taught one day in 2010.
Cheng worked for Domus for four total years before heading to graduate school this fall. He’s enrolled in a joint program between Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania; he plans to leave with an MBA and a masters in public policy after three years. He’s not sure of his plans after school. He said he aims to return to education in a role that has more impact.
“I would love to lead a school district one day,” he said, or work for a charter school organization.
TFA alums may not stay in the classroom, he argued, but most “still have an interest in education. Regardless of what we end up doing, we’ll always be an advocate for education and education reform.”