D.C. Schools Chief Turns To Rookie Teacher Corps

Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michele Rhee is getting a lot of attention because she oversees a troubled school system in the nation's capital. And she's doing a lot to shake it up. She's pursuing several plans, one of which involves recruiting young, motivated teachers.

In other words, Rhee is looking for a "new breed" of teachers, mostly 20-somethings fresh out of college, who may not have majored in education but are drawn to teaching; like 22-year-old Meredith Leonard, a sixth-grade English teacher at Shaw-Garnet-Patterson Middle School.

Like many first-year teachers who've poured into Washington, D.C., in the past few years, Leonard is receptive to the changes that Rhee is proposing, such as merit pay and doing away with teacher tenure.

All good ideas, says Leonard.

"Obviously what was going on in the past with the system wasn't working, and she was introducing something very different, and she wasn't taking no for answer," she says. "If you were not teaching, then you were out ... I liked the idea of personal accountability."

It's all about change now, says Leonard.

"I want to think I'm part of this change, but I really can only speak for myself," she says.

Leonard actually speaks for many young teachers who see teaching as an opportunity to make a difference. Like many of them, she grew up somewhere else, on a farm in New Jersey. Leonard attended Catholic schools all the way through college.

"And I hadn't even thought about being a teacher," she says. "I was one of those people who really didn't know what they wanted to do, but I liked it, I liked being around the kids. They were funny, they're very bright. People don't give them enough credit."

Leonard says she has found her calling. It's her first year, but she exudes confidence. Her classroom walls are plastered with rules — 'behavior warning,' reads one poster. She's organized. She's stern but never screams. She likes to say "cool, awesome, totally." She's engaging, even funny.

Leonard's sixth-graders have made remarkable progress this year, especially in reading. All of her students are 100 percent proficient, according to the latest test scores. Most of these kids are growing up poor in some pretty tough neighborhoods, but Leonard doesn't believe poverty is an excuse for kids not learning.

"To say that because they have a really bad home life, they're unable to read a book and figure out what the theme is, I think that's very unfair," she says, adding that the abuse or hardships they face outside school shouldn't get in the way of their learning.

"And maybe it's because I'm a first-year teacher, maybe I'm not jaded yet, but that's always been my opinion on it," she says. "There is a difference — you can't pretend there isn't — between new teachers and teachers who've been in the system a long time."

That difference, reform experts say, is what Rhee is trying to reconcile as she moves aggressively to remake the city's teacher corps.

According to Rick Hess, a senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, "younger teachers obviously don't have as much at stake."

Unlike younger teachers, says Hess, veteran teachers believe they have a lot to lose when people start talking about change.

"They knew they were never going to be richly compensated, but they knew they were going to have steady employment and that one of the perks is you get to the school you want to be at and teach the classes you want to be in" if you put in your time, Hess says.

There's a sense among veteran teachers that their rights are slipping away, he says. And that creates tension between new and veteran teachers in a school. Shaw-Garnet-Patterson Principal Brian Betts says he has largely avoided this generational rift.

"I didn't look at youth, per se, as an advantage, and I've taken a lot on the chin about that, [including] being accused of being an ageist," Betts says.

Betts handpicked the entire faculty when he took over this school last fall. Here, he says, both veteran teachers and young teachers right out of college have something to contribute, "provided those contributions are all based on student achievement."

Betts says most of the young teachers he's hired believe their success should be measured by their students' success. What's unacceptable, he says, is the attitude that goes something like this: I don't know what happened, I taught them the information.

"If you live in the camp, 'I taught it, they didn't learn it, it's on them,' then you're not going to survive," the principal says.

Still, Betts has gone out of his way to hire young teachers. Of the 35 he hired this year, 28 are rookies. Betts understands, though, that if his school is going to improve, experienced teachers must be the anchors and serve as mentors to young teachers, like 24-year-old Nicholas Fiorelli, who teaches sixth-grade math.

Seven months into his rookie year, Fiorelli still can't control his students. Once, he was sitting in the hallway feeling frustrated, and another math teacher shared some advice with him.

"She's like, 'You're not organized enough, the kids aren't organized enough. That's why your classroom is chaotic,' " he recounts.

Betts, the principal, says Fiorelli will eventually figure things out.

"Nick is a master of student engagement," Bett says. "Already as a first-year teacher, he has found buttons to push with kids that make them want to learn"

The problem, of course, is that kids have learned to push Fiorelli's buttons, too, which to his credit he's been willing to admit to their parents

"I told them this is my first year, I'm going to make mistakes, please be patient with me,"

But Fiorelli doesn't have much time. Patience, after all, is not something Rhee is known for. She wants results now. Fiorelli knows he has much to learn, especially from his more experienced colleagues.

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