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Teachers assess opportunities, challenges in working for Philadelphia at recruitment fair

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    Dale Mezzacappa

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Jeewon Kim is relocating to Philadelphia for family reasons from Chicago, where he is a specialist in early learning at a well-regarded charter school. Danbi Yi, originally from North Carolina, is studying to be an English teacher at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

Nguessan Yobouet is a French teacher originally from the Ivory Coast. And Alexis Green, from just outside Atlantic City, will soon be a freshly minted graduate of York College of Pennsylvania with certification in pre-K to 4th grade.

They were among the 125 prospective teachers who attended a job fair at the School District headquarters last Thursday, where they heard Superintendent William Hite tell them that if helping children reach their potential in the face of big challenges is what they are looking for, this is the place to be.

 “I do hope you will join us,” he said. “Our students … if given the opportunity, will do great things.”

For emphasis, the girls’ choir from nearby Franklin Learning Center serenaded the group with a rendition of “There’s No Place I’d Rather Be.”  

The School District of Philadelphia is always looking for new teachers; in such a huge organization, it is rare that every teaching job is filled at any given moment, as teachers resign, retire, or are forced to leave due to illness or other reasons.

In each of the past several school years, the District has needed to hire around 1,000 new teachers over the spring and summer. Perennially, it seeks to move up its timetable and offer jobs as early as possible so that the best candidates are not picked off by suburban districts that pay better and arguably have less challenging working conditions. Early hiring also helps with a smooth opening of school and classroom stability for thousands of students for whom stability is often lacking in other parts of their lives.

This year, the Human Resources Department is on the latest quest to actually make this happen, along with diversifying the teaching force to add more teachers of color.

Hite didn’t sugarcoat the challenges and difficulties for the prospective employees, mentioning right up front the elephant in the room – that the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have been in a contract stalemate for the past five years.

“I want to communicate to all of those thinking about working with the School District of Philadelphia, our number one goal is to resolve that issue,” he told the group. The usual teacher churn has been exacerbated by the contract impasse; salaries, in effect, have been frozen, and PFT members haven’t received their increments for additional coursework and experience. Morale has suffered.

Still, Hite said in all the districts he has worked in, he finds the teachers in Philadelphia to be the most dedicated.

“In no other place have I seen that level of commitment,” he said.

And the students, most of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, have great potential just waiting to be unleashed, he said. Hite bragged about two illustrious alumni who were recently showcased in the city. Comedian Kevin Hart went back to his alma mater, Kenderton elementary school in North Philadelphia, for a national TV interview, and Dawn Staley, the coach of the national championship women’s basketball team, was feted at Dobbins High School, from which she graduated nearly 30 years ago.

After hearing Hite, the teachers at the fair made the rounds at tables from 25 schools where teacher leaders and principals did impromptu interviews and took resumes. Just about all the teaching positions in the District are now filled through "site selection" in which teachers are hired by the District, but fill jobs based on interviews with the principals and leadership teams of local schools. Traditionally, positions were filled strictly by seniority -- principals had no input in hiring -- and even new teachers chose their schools, rather than the other way around. 

Kim visited six elementary tables.

Originally from Fairfax County, VA, he attended Tufts University, where he studied early childhood development and educational policy.  His original goal was to work in the policy arena.

“It occurred to me that if I had something intelligent to say about policy, I had to understand schools from the ground level first,” he said.  After graduating from Tufts, he started teaching in an Americorps program and got an alternative certification, as well as a master’s degree, through a program at Northwestern University’s  Graduate School of Social Policy and Education that places teachers in Chicago schools.  

He taught 1st grade in Chicago parochial and charter schools and became an “academic interventionist” at the LEARN charter school network in 2015, where he teaches especially at-risk children, coaches other teachers, and analyzes data.

He has gone to other job fairs in the area, but prefers to teach in Philadelphia.

“I’m moving, and I’ve got to be open to leads as they come, but I’m drawn to education by a social justice perspective and would rather work in an urban setting if possible,” he said.

Nguessan Yobouet is from the Ivory Coast. Has been teaching French at World Communications Charter, which is closing. “I live in Philly, why would I go somewhere else?" he said when asked why he wants to teach here. He said the city is a good place to teach “and nobody has proved the opposite.” A graduate of West Chester University, he has lived in Philadelphia for six years.

Still, as he made the rounds at the job fair, no school he visited had a French opening.

However, Yobouet could teach English as a second language, which is a position for which there is demand. It is always tricky in Pennsylvania, though – the state has no specific ESL certification, but teachers certified in something else can get an “endorsement “ for ESL.  Yobouet said he taught English to French speakers in his native country and has been certified to teach English as a second language to adults, but not in K-12. He also said he taught in the U.S Army and in the UN army.

He also said he was not particularly concerned about the lack of a teachers’ contract.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It happens all the time, this is life. Any school district has its own problems.”

Danbi Yi, who is getting her English certification at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, went straight to a separate session upstairs from the main group where schools in the Innovation Network were meeting candidates.

Yi, originally from North Carolina, is doing her student teaching at The Workshop School and likes it there. She sat down first with Chris Lehmann, who is the assistant superintendent in charge of the Innovation Network, as well as co-principal of Science Leadership Academy.

Before enrolling at GSE, she worked at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), which, like the schools in the Innovation Network, uses a student-centered and project-based approach to learning.  

She was full of questions.

Lehmann explained that none of the innovative schools are exactly alike – that would defeat the purpose. But they all adhere to similar core values based on the need to revolve around student interests and be based on projects and inquiry. The core values guiding instruction at SLA, he said, are inquiry, search, collaboration presentation, and reflection.

“Everything ends with the work that the kids do and their reflections on that work. That leads to a very vibrant and exciting, messy, loud feeling to the building, which I love a whole lot. The other big idea in the building is the idea of care, the idea that there’s a difference between I teach a subject versus I teach my students. To that end we convey to them that we don’t just care about their work, we care about them as people. So that tends to be the model.”

“Amazing,” Yi enthused. “I love project-based learning.” But after all that, Lehmann said that SLA is unlikely to have an English opening next year, although if she gets a second certification in social studies she might have a chance.

Yi, not discouraged, went off to talk to principals and teachers from the other schools.

Alexis Green graduates with certification in a highly desirable area – pre-K to 4th grade. Originally from a small town outside Atlantic City, she is looking in Philadelphia because she wantst to be close to home.

Plus, she said, “Philadelphia is looking for teachers who are willing to put in the effort and work with students to give them the best opportunity to learn,” she said. “I think I can help with that.” She was making the rounds of the elementary school tables, including Meade and McMichael, both in high-poverty areas with lots of teacher turnover.

She said she student-taught in North Carolina through a satellite program at York and though it was in a rural area, the students were mostly poor and had great needs.

“I am here because I think I made a difference in their lives and I would do that here as well,” she said.

Does it bother her that there is no teachers’ contract? “No,” she said. The job market is competitive now, “and I’m looking for a school that can help me start my teaching career and give me a rewarding experience.”

Deborah Hansen, a teacher leader at Meade School in North Philadelphia, was there recruiting for her school.

“There are a lot of good candidates,” she said. “There are a lot of people ready to be hired. This is exciting.”

One person currently commutes from New Jersey to the Bronx – and would like to teach in Philly because it would be a shorter commute.

Meade, in a very poor section of North Philadelphia, has to fill at least eight vacancies next year.  

“We’ve had a lot of teacher turnover in the past couple of years, we want to have candidates to persevere through the challenges,” Hansen said. This year, they have four vacancies that are being filled by substitutes.

Too much turnover and staff instability hurts kids, she said. “It’s hard to get everything you need to do with kids if they don’t have a permanent teacher.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.