Teacher training program aims to close achievement gap in Milwaukee

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Michael Nguyen believes that education is the root of all success. That’s why after finishing his degree at the University of Illinois in 2009, he decided to help others reach their potential. 

What better way, he thought, than in front of a classroom. A little more than a year after graduation, Nguyen became a middle school English teacher at Carson Academy on Milwaukee’s northwest side.

What helped put the psychology and sociology major on a fast track toward reaching that goal was a teacher training program in Milwaukee called Teach for America. It recruits recent graduates like Nguyen from around the country, provides intensive summer training and places those newly-trained teachers into the highest-need schools. 

“The children living in the city of Milwaukee deserve high quality teachers who are committed to the goal of their students’ academic success and know how to reach that goal,” said Jeannie Fenceroy, a Greater Milwaukee Foundation senior program officer.

Teach for America is one of a host of national programs designed to transform urban education that has entered Milwaukee over the past few years and one of several the Foundation has supported. In April 2009 the Foundation made a $150,000 grant, which enabled the program to expand its capacity to serve 40 teachers instead of the 30 planned for in the early stages of the program’s development. Corps members started in the fall at 24 schools. The program now has 120 teachers in 40 charter, choice and Milwaukee Public Schools and 220 alumni 

Having first started in 1990 with 500 teachers in six low-income communities, Teach for America now has a network of 10,000 corps members in nearly 50 urban and rural communities as well as 28,000 alumni. 

“We want in our lifetime and in our generation’s lifetime to create a world where your income level and the color of your skin no longer determine whether you will get a college-ready level of education or not,” said Garrett Bucks, founding executive director of Teach for America in Milwaukee and now the national program’s chief marketing officer. “We’ve gone everywhere where there is a gap there.” 

“We want in our lifetime and in our generation’s lifetime to create a world where your income level and the color of your skin no longer determine whether you will get a college-ready level of education or not,” said Garrett Bucks

Perhaps nowhere is that disparity more pronounced than in Wisconsin, where the gap between African American and white students is the largest nationwide and where only 62 percent of MPS students graduate. Despite the greater challenge, however, Bucks said the approach does not change. 

Bucks said they recruit individuals who are best able to face that head on. From a nationwide pool of 57,000 applicants, 14 percent were selected for this year’s new class. Thirty-eight percent are minorities and almost 90 percent held campus leadership positions.

Corps members commit to serving two years and receive ongoing coaching and professional development, including earning their teacher’s license as well as a master’s degree in education from Marquette or Cardinal Stritch universities.

Studies have shown Teach for America teachers outperform those with more traditional training. Sixty percent of alumni continue with careers in education, including jobs as school principals, administrators and community leaders. Nguyen, for example, has since become an assistant pricipal at St. Anthony Middle School.

“Teach for America is not a silver bullet, but it is one important component to an overall educational reform strategy in a community,” said Jim Rahn, president at the Kern Family Foundation, which invested $1.3 million and helped bring the program to Milwaukee. “We are optimistic it will be an important step forward.”

The program looks to teachers to make significant gains toward closing the achievement gap. They are expected to help students make more than 1-1/2 years of growth in math and reading or have 80 percent of the class meet grade-level standards. Nguyen understood those high expectations coming in and said the program prepared him to do his best.  

“Every teacher just has to do the best they can to give their students the best education regardless where they are teaching or what their student’s background is,” he said. “I can't imagine a program that could better prepare me for what I had gone through. TFA tries to prepare you in every facet of teaching, every facet of the classroom before you can step into it."

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