Schools in the Mississippi Delta used to relying on a steady stream of Teach for America teachers must look at other options for assistance this year. The number of teachers, or corps members, in the state went from 140 in the 2015-2016 school year to 80 this year.

Funding also has diminished. Last year, Teach for America received $6 million from the state for teacher recruiting and training. Now there is just $2 million to work with after most state agencies received less money from the Legislature for this fiscal year. The money from the state goes toward the 5-week summer training every corps member attends before the start of the first school year, along with recruitment efforts and ongoing training and professional development from teacher coaches and content specialists who work with teachers throughout the school year.

The reduced funding didn’t cause a reduction in staff or changes in Teach for America’s teacher training this year. But unless TFA is able to secure other sources of funding, staff and training could be affected in coming years, said Barbara Logan Smith, the head of TFA in Mississippi.

“We have a team of folks trying to figure out who can help us and who else can be supportive,” Smith said, noting she was appreciative of the funding from the state. “Having an allocation at all is an indicator that the state is still behind us.”

School districts also have to pay a higher fee for their TFA teachers this year. Two years ago, the cost was $3,000 per teacher, then $3,500 last year and is currently $4,250 for 2016-2017. Districts usually use federal Title I funds to pay these fees, according to a Teach for America spokesperson.

Coupled with an overall decline in the number of people applying to join Teach for America the past three years, this makes it especially difficult for rural areas like the Mississippi Delta to attract as many as it has in the past.

Parks Elementary and second-year Teach For America teacher Mary Katherine Honeycutt goes over the day's lesson plans for her 4th grade class.
Parks Elementary and second-year Teach For America teacher Mary Katherine Honeycutt goes over the day’s lesson plans for her 4th grade class. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

“This is a very different economy,” Teach for America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard told Mississippi Today in an interview at Delta State University, which hosts trainings for TFA teachers, on Wednesday. Since the national economy began to improve, there has been more competition with other fields hiring high-performing college graduates, Beard said.

Teach for America has changed several approaches it takes to combat this problem, Beard said. During the organization’s 25 years, the primary recruitment campaign has been focused on college seniors. Last year, TFA changed its policy to allow juniors in their second semester to apply.

“This generation is very career-oriented. … Folks are getting to people much earlier,” Beard explained. “We’re working to get 1,400 juniors accepted to TFA this year. Last year we had 800.”

Because Teach for America works with applicants to place them where they want to go, rural areas often get the short end of the stick. Beard said the organization now consults with applicants on the phone to explore different areas, as opposed to automatically placing people according to the locations they ranked on their application.

“It’s very challenging for places like the Mississippi Delta and all of our rural communities. People have their own assumptions or misunderstandings of what it’s like,” Beard said.

Smith said in Mississippi, the demand for TFA teachers is outstripping the supply.

“We’ve had to make some really difficult decisions in terms of where we’re able to place people,” Smith said.

Teach for America-Mississippi Executive Director Barbara Logan Smith said reduced state funding did not have a major impact on staff or teacher training this year.
Teach for America-Mississippi Executive Director Barbara Logan Smith said reduced state funding did not have a major impact on staff or teacher training this year. Credit: Teach for America

For example, Greenville School District during one year had about 60 TFA teachers, compared to 12 this year, for its 5,000-plus students, according to Superintendent Leeson Taylor II. He said the availability of TFA teachers allows the district to offer courses and instruction it otherwise could not.

TFA applicants must commit to two years of teaching, and the organization’s goal is to have 40 percent stay for a third year. The Mississippi chapter has a team of two alumni working to recruit college graduates from Mississippi to teach here to increase the likelihood they will stay in the community for longer than two years.

Cody Shumaker is one of them. He first came to teach at Broad Street High School in Shelby nine years ago from Illinois and has remained in the Delta. He is now principal at Parks Elementary School in Cleveland School District.

He said feeling comfortable in Cleveland “made a big impact on my decision to stay here,” noting that Cleveland is one of the more desirable locations in the Delta for Teach for America teachers.

He also said the need to do more led him to stay and pursue a career in administration.

“There was only so much I could do inside the four walls of Room 15, and if I was going to make an impact, I needed to look at a leadership role,” he said.

Smith said despite the decline in first-year TFA teachers, it’s important to note that with alumni and second-year teachers, the number jumps to 500.

“We also have over 200 alumni in the region. With 2nd years and 1st years, we have a force of almost 500 folks in the region doing really good work.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.