What will it take to attract, develop, and retain high-performing teachers to reverse chronically low-achieving schools? Philanthropists and talent organizations in Memphis think they have the answer.
In January 2014, Chris Barbic, the then superintendent of the Achievement School District and Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County superintendent issued a joint statement, announcing the goal to transform Memphis into “Teacher Town USA.”
Teacher Town is part of a string of reforms to raise student achievement both in Memphis and statewide. Since 2010, Tennessee lawmakers have instituted reforms such as extending the period before teachers can receive tenure, creating the ASD (a statewide district that assumes management of the bottom five percent of public schools), raising the cap on charter schools, and recruiting alternative teacher-preparation programs.
These policies have received major philanthropic support from local funders such as Barbara and Pitt Hyde, the Pyramid Peak, and Poplar Foundations, and Teacher Town is no exception.
What is Teacher Town?
Truthfully, it’s no one thing, but rather a collection of actions taken throughout Memphis. To local funders, Teacher Town is a multimillion dollar investment in the organizations, people, and places that are advancing the teaching profession, whether in Shelby County district schools, ASD schools, or charter schools.
Teacher Town runs the gamut from teacher residency programs that place educators in high-need areas to offering tips to teachers who are new to the area on where to find a grocery store, easing their adjustment to life in Memphis.
“Philanthropists can take risks—calculated risks,” Teresa Sloyan, executive director of the Hyde Family Foundation, said in a September 2014 article. “We can operate inside but also operate outside the traditional system to really push.”
Local donors are careful to take a strategy-first approach when making collaborative investments in programs and organizations that will advance teacher quality in Memphis.
“Strategy came first. We didn’t just start off with ‘Let’s raise a lot of money and then see what we can do,’” Jim Boyd, executive director of the Pyramid Peak Foundation, said in the same article.
He continued, “We started with ‘What do we need to do, what level do we need to fund, what do we need to bring individually?’ I have really seen the benefits of trying to find a way … to align goals and work.”
Investment in human capital is nothing new to the Hydes, who have been stalwarts in attracting top-tier teacher and leadership development organizations to their hometown. New Leaders, the Memphis Teacher Residency, Relay Graduate School of Education, and TNTP are just some examples of organizations supported by the Hydes, all of which are current partners to Teacher Town.
Teacher Town Commons
If Teacher Town is the what, then Teacher Town Commons is the where. Housed in a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of downtown Memphis, the Commons is located within the same building as the ASD and right around the corner from the National Civil Rights Museum.
The purpose of the space is to foster collaboration, where Memphis educators can come together and engage in idea-sharing.
Challenges Facing Memphis
Of the approximately 116,000 students in Memphis public schools, 80 percent are low income. Just 40 percent of students grades 3-8 are proficient in math on state assessments and 33 percent in ELA, a full 15 points less than the state average in both subjects. Over 90 percent of ASD schools are located in the Memphis area.
A 2015 survey conducted by Teach 901, a Memphis-based organization that runs teacher residency and training programs, found that three quarters of teaching recruits in low-performing schools said contributing to the education reform movement was an important factor in deciding to come to Memphis and teach.
The same survey highlighted the challenge of retaining strong teachers and avoiding turnover altogether. Fully one third of teachers in Memphis priority schools (schools that rank in the bottom five percent on state assessments) responded with plans to stop teaching within five years, a trend that is unfortunately all too common in economically challenged communities. One of the goals of Teacher Town will be to direct resources toward efforts to retain effective teachers in those schools most in need of a stable teaching force.
The Way Forward
Aside from placing high-quality teachers in classrooms with at-risk students, Teacher Town’s primary objective is to turn Memphis into the gold standard of teacher development in urban areas. Teacher Town represents an all-in investment on the part of dedicated, local funders that will potentially yield the greatest return for kids in the classroom.
With commitments from funders like the Hydes, Pyramid Peak, and Poplar, Memphis may very well be on the path toward becoming the top destination for educators to develop their skills, remain in the teaching profession, and truly thrive.