Tulsa is fertile ground for those wanting to make a difference in their communities.
That’s the attitude of many Teach For America (TFA) alumni who stay in town after their two-year teaching commitment through the nonprofit, which brings recent college grads into low-income classrooms.
Leslie Daugherty, deputy executive director for TFA in Northeast Oklahoma, said Tulsa has a strong reputation nationally for its retention rate of TFA alumni. Since the program partnered with Tulsa, the retention rate of alumni has always been above 50 percent. In the past two years, the rate has been between 65 and 70 percent, surpassing the 55-61 percent that is the national average, TFA officials said.
But the problem isn’t keeping alumni here once they have completed the program. It’s attracting them to Tulsa in the first place.
Out of 52 regions served by TFA, Oklahoma is one of five listed as having the highest need. Officials say the state has one of the lowest preference rates in the country for TFA applications.
Last week, the George Kaiser Family Foundation distributed a video on social media outlets that asks TFA applicants to choose Tulsa. The video, produced by the foundation, features TFA alumni who served in Tulsa talking about why applicants should choose Tulsa. Information about the cost of living as well as quality of life is included.
Aaron Miller, a program officer for the foundation, said, “We found that people had a very high satisfaction with their corps experience, they wanted to stay, but there was no way to get that information to them when they were going through the ranking process.”
So the foundation partnered with TFA to distribute the video through recruitment managers, in addition to the social media campaign.
“We are trying to target prospective TFA applicants from a select list of universities to receive a Twitter or Facebook post with a link to this video,” he said.
Teach For America eventually assigns people to regions through a balance of both preference and need, but Daugherty said regions that are highly preferred by applicants have advantages.
“So if someone is assigned to you that actually didn’t want to come to your region, then you’ve actually got more work cut out for you ... for them to say I actually want to accept this offer and come teach there,” she said.
“And then, theoretically, (highly preferred regions) have more of an advantage in keeping alumni in the region after their initial commitment is fulfilled because they chose that region to begin with,” Daugherty added.
Currently, more than 225 Teach For America corps members are teaching in Tulsa, with 180 of them at Tulsa Public Schools. The organization also partners with CAP Tulsa and charter schools KIPP Tulsa, Tulsa Legacy Charter School, Collegiate Hall and Tulsa Honor Academy.
The northeast Oklahoma office of TFA also provides a handful of teachers to Muskogee and Sapulpa public schools.
Since 2009, TFA has recruited nearly 650 teachers to Tulsa, with more than 530 of them serving at Tulsa Public Schools.
There are 170 TFA alumni in Tulsa. According to TFA, 78 percent of its alumni in Tulsa are working in education, and 52 percent are teachers.
Daugherty said corps members and alumni have told her they are excited about the progress they are seeing.
“I often hear alumni reflect on the fact that, although there is so much work still to do, meaningful progress feels really possible here,” she said. “And I think that that is one really critical reason that people choose to stay in our community and commit the rest of their lives to working to increase opportunities for kids.”
Miller, who himself is a Teach for America alum from Chicago, echoed that sentiment.
“I decided I wanted to stay in Tulsa; I saw a great opportunity to make a difference in this city,” he said. “It’s still malleable. There are still things that you, as a young person, can change.”
Anthony Grant, a TFA alum who is now assistant principal at TPS’ Anderson Elementary School, said he and his friends jokingly refer to Tulsa as “The Wild Wild West of Education Reform.”
There are plenty of opportunities in education here, he said.
“There’s room to do whatever you kind of want to,” Grant said.
Grant’s corps assignment brought him to Tulsa in 2010, as he served at Gilcrease Middle School and then McLain Junior High. The Los Angeles native then decided to stay, teaching and working in administration at KIPP before coming back to TPS as an assistant principal this year.
Grant, who majored in black studies and sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said he never considered entering education before a TFA recruiter came to his university and likened the activist work Grant was doing on campus through the Black Student Union to education reform.
Though he didn’t place Tulsa on his list of preferred regions, Grant did indicate he was willing to go where he was needed.
And he ended up here.
After his time in Tulsa schools, Grant says he was inspired to continue the work and to stay in town.
“I felt like it was a higher calling,” he said.
Grant said he was sent here on a mission: education equity.
“I don’t feel like it’s done,” he said, and he plans to stay here for the foreseeable future until it is, or until he is called somewhere else.
The community has also kept him here, he said. All his work has been done in north Tulsa, where he has built relationships with students and their families.
Miller said retaining TFA alumni is great for Tulsa.
“I think TFA teachers who stay in the community have a strong commitment to social justice and a strong will to put themselves in difficult situations where they can make a great impact,” he said. “Whether TFA teachers stay in the classroom or whether they go on to be leaders in other sectors, they’re always approaching their work with a mindset of how they can impact the community around them.”
Nour Habib 918-581-8369
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