‘We are not playing with kids’ lives’: Teach for America director emphasizes Mississippi mission

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For those who argue the education system is broken, Barbara Logan Smith disagrees.

“In truth, the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do because it was never designed to actually get all kids to the place where they knew what they needed to know and could do what they needed to do to actually be viable citizens in the world,” said Smith, executive director of Teach for America’s greater Delta region.

Staci Lewis, Teach for America

Barbara Logan Smith, executive director of Teach for America’s greater Delta region

The longtime educator spoke to a full room at a community forum in west Jackson Friday morning, where she discussed the organization’s work in Mississippi.

Teach For America is a national organization  known for taking recent college graduates and placing them in underserved communities across the country. The teachers, known as corps members, go through summer training before they start the school year and each commit to a two-year period with the organization.

Critics argue the organization places inexperienced educators into classrooms and communities they are not prepared to serve, and that many of these teachers end up leaving their schools after their commitment is up.

“We know you can’t take folks who haven’t been invested in teaching and just throw them into the classroom,” Smith said.

Earlier this year the organization announced the Mississippi and Arkansas offices of Teach for America would merge into one region. In preparation for their first year of teaching, corps members spend several weeks of the summer in training in the Delta. There are about 100 teachers doing this right now, she said. Once the school year begins, corps members receive professional development every other week and attend four training summits throughout the year.

“They’re not playing with children’s lives, they understand that we have a responsibility to set these kids up to exceed the expectations of their testing,” Smith said.

Smith acknowledged that the state is facing teacher shortage, but that solving the shortage problem is “actually not what our organization is about.”

The Mississippi Department of Education currently lists about 1,000 vacancies, although only about 650 of those are for teaching positions. All vacancies on the site are self-reported by districts, so the number could be higher due to some districts choosing not to post job openings on the site.

“Our real work is about ending educational inequity and building educational excellence,” she said. “That work is connected, but it’s different from addressing the teacher shortage.”

Everyone is born with the capacity to do great things, she said, and it’s TFA’s mission to set children up to do this.

“The truth of the matter is as you look across our nation, what you consistently see is that kids whose families don’t have a lot of money and kids who have a little too much melanin in their skin and kids whose families speak another language other than English are often kids who never have the opportunity to actualize that capacity.”

During the 2017-18 school year 131 corps members served in Mississippi. Post-merger, Smith told the room on Friday that in the upcoming school year about 200 teachers will serve in the Mississippi and Arkansas region. Corps members are placed in school districts based on need — schools that have enough room for multiple corps members are an attractive option because it allows for a sense of community.  The organization also considers whether there are TFA alumni in the area to offer fellowship and support.

In Mississippi, TFA teachers work in Jackson, the Delta, and Holly Springs.