By MARIE FAZIO, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Twelve years ago, Alyana Jefferson was a kindergarten student in Cherelyn Poe’s KIPP Central City classroom, learning to read and do basic math.
Now a senior at Booker T. Washington High School, Jefferson has a different role in the same classroom: She’s helping teach Poe’s students, who Poe calls her “crimson crawfish.”
Last year, Jefferson’s teachers identified her as a potential candidate for teaching: she’s dedicated, has strong leadership skills and is respected and trusted by her peers. So she enrolled in an education class where she spent the first few months of the school year learning how to be a teacher and think critically about equity in education.
Then, Jefferson and her classmates were sent down the street to classrooms at KIPP Central City.
“I didn’t want to be a teacher,” Jefferson said. “But once you actually take the class and teach hands-on you realize it’s about the children. You don’t have to be a doctor to make a difference, to save someone’s life.”
Three years ago, KIPP New Orleans launched the alumni teacher force, a first-of-its-kind program in New Orleans that selected high schoolers to teach younger students. The program has since expanded to include about 15 John F. Kennedy High School students who teach at Hynes French Immersion – UNO, in addition to the Booker T. Washington students.
After graduating from college, the students are guaranteed a job at KIPP, creating a pipeline back to KIPP.
A similar program is being piloted this year at Warren Easton High School, where students teach elementary students at Morris Jeff Community School and a few opted to teach younger classes at Warren Easton, institutionalizing an already prevalent tradition of alumni coming back to teach at the close -knit school, said Andrea Spreter, who heads the program.
Many students in the first class did not have an interest in teaching but jumped at curriculum that stressed teaching as an agent for social change, she said. Five juniors in the class have opted to take it again next year for an internship credit.
Scarlet Cornelius, the director of post-secondary strategy and programming at KIPP, says the program might help solve the teacher shortage in New Orleans.
“I genuinely believe this is the solution to retaining teachers,” she said.
All five KIPP alumni who began teaching at KIPP schools in 2018 are still there, a feat that defies statistical likelihood that teachers will drop out of the profession between their first and third year on the job, Cornelius said.
“We want to get to the point where we’re hiring 20 new teachers a year, not 125,” she said.
Cornelius said the program could also help retain veteran teachers by giving them a newfound purpose in training the next generation.
On a recent morning, a group of kindergarteners sat with rapt attention on a carpet as Jefferson drew cookies on a whiteboard. They counted the cookies in staggered unison — there were 17 — then thought through what would happen if someone named “David” ate six of them.
At a classroom down the hall, Kierra Daniels sat at a table with four students and helped them use their fingers to calculate sums. And upstairs, Amanie Scott used flashcards to quiz a student on vocabulary.
“They get to go to the other side of the curtain after being behind the desk,” Cornelius said.
This year, 28 seniors from Booker T. Washington and John F. Kennedy took the teaching class. At the start of the program, only about 10 were set on becoming teachers after college. But in a mid-year survey, that number doubled. The goal is to have 40% of participants go into teaching, Cornelius said.
Next year, there are more students interested than available spots, Cornelius said.
Grant funding allows students to be paid to work as summer school teachers at KIPP before and after they graduate high school.
Cornelius also helps students who go to college out of state find classroom work in those states. Jefferson said she will attend Texas Southern University in the fall to study finance and education and plans to teach for a few years after college, hopefully at KIPP.
Cornelius said she feels confident that any number of current high schoolers could be the “next great New Orleans teacher.”
“The program is debunking the myth that New Orleans public school students aren’t ready for certain things,” she said. “They’re ready, they just need to be given the opportunity.”
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