Minnesota Board of Teaching should respect principals’ request re which teachers to hire

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Will the Minnesota Board of Teaching respect the request of a principal whose school has been praised by several sources as one of the metro areas leading “beat the odds schools?”  We’ll find out this Friday, August 2.

Unfortunately the Minnesota Board of Teaching recently said “no” to requests from Eli Kramer, executive director at Hiawatha Academy.  In May, 2012, the Minnesota Department ranked Hiawatha as the state’s best school enrolling more than 50% low income students, in terms of closing achievement gaps between low income and more affluent students.  In 2011 and 2012, the  Star Tribune listed Hiawatha as one of the metro areas top ten “beat the odds” schools.

Kramer  asked to hire several people he considered outstanding. But the Board of Teaching refused to authorize a waiver that would have allowed him to do that.  University of Minnesota internationally –known education leadership professor Karen Seashore Louis has written about the vital importance of a principal in a school. http://www.sisd.net/cms/lib/TX01001452/Centricity/Domain/33/ReviewofResearch-LearningFromLeadership.pdf    Of course, this makes commons sense: 

Unless a principal has a consistently poor record, such requests regarding who teaches in the school, within bounds of state law, should be respected.  Minnesota’s “Community Experts” law allows the board to grant a waiver, allowing schools to hire people without licenses for teaching positions. These schools asked for a waiver to hire a few unlicensed people as teachers. The law lists criteria for making this decision, including the person’s qualifications, reasons for a variance, the district’s efforts to obtain licensed teachers and the extent to which district or charter is using other non-licensed teachers. Jimmy Barnhill, a Minneapolis teacher and board member, told me their decision-making process is “complex.”

Hiawatha, the school Kramer directs has 95 percent of Hiawatha’s students come from low-income families. More than 20 percent speak Spanish as their first language.   Because of its success, hundreds of students have applied. Hiawatha has expanded. Kramer, told me that he hired 30 new teachers for the 2013-14 school year: Twenty were not associated with Teach for America, two were new Teach for America participants and eight were Teach for America alumni.

Teach for America is a national program that hires bright, talented, generally recent college graduates who have not earned a teacher’s license. In the past, the Board of Teaching has given these people community expert waivers allowing them to teach. It’s controversial.  Neither Kramer nor I would argue that all TFA participants are more effective than all graduates of traditional teacher prep programs.  That’s why he hired a mixture.

I asked Bill Wilson, former Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights and executive director of Higher Ground Academy, another award-winning “Beat the Odds” school, what he thought of the teacher program: “Their members are a valuable part of our staff. They bring energy, passion and skills.”  LIke Hiawatha, HGA employes a mixture of traditionally trained teachers, and TFA participants (and alumni). 

Eric Mahmoud, director of Best/Harvest Prep, whose school has won local and national awards, told me, “Some of our best teachers come from TFA.” Same situation as at HGA and Hiawatha.  Mahmoud employs a mix of people from different programs.  

John Bellingham, chair of the Board of Teaching also talked with me about the board’s decision. Bellingham has taught in Faribault for more than 30 years, mostly as a sixth-grade teacher. He’s won awards for his work. Bellingham impressed me as thoughtful and caring. He reported that the board was concerned about requests from Hiawatha and one other school to hire unlicensed elementary teachers, when “this is an area where there is no shortage of teachers.”

However, both Hiawatha and a new St. Paul school reviewed hundreds of applications. Mostly, they hired people with licenses. In a few cases, they hired Teach for America program participants.  Kramer of Hiawatha described the Teach for America program participants who were rejected by the board: “They are both college graduates with very strong academic records. … They have a demonstrably strong mindset that all children can learn if given the right opportunities. They exude passion for this work, showing that they want to be a part of (a) team that does whatever it takes to close the opportunity gaps. They both have demonstrated leadership in college.”

Bellingham told me that the Board of Teaching would meet again on Aug. 2. The schools can reapply; Kramer told me that he will be at the meeting. The new St. Paul principal also deserves a chance to show what that school can do.

Minnesota schools have many caring, talented educators. We need more. Are Minnesota students well-served by having teachers such as those Kramer described? I think the answer is yes.

 

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota urban public school teacher, adminisrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org