March 26, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:55 am
NONPROFIT NOTEBOOK

Businesses investing in Teach For America

Nate Snow, executive director of Teach For America Connecticut
Eileen Whelley, executive vice president of human resources at The Hartford

As Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state legislature focus on education reform and reducing the achievement gap in the state's urban centers, local corporations are doing their part to invest in future business leaders.

Teach For America-Connecticut, a state-accredited alternative route to certification which places high-achieving college graduates in struggling urban school districts, continues to grow steadily as a result of a commitment by many in the business community to support education initiatives in Connecticut's cities.

Five years after Teach for America was launched in Connecticut, there are now 175 teachers, known as "corps members," in traditional and charter public schools in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Stamford. Teachers are recruited from top colleges and universities across the country, and each corps member commits to teaching in an urban school district for two years. A record 48,000 individuals applied for the 2011 corps, and 14 percent earned acceptance.

This past year, about $5 million was contributed — 80 percent from private sources — in Connecticut to support the recruitment, training and support of Teach for America teachers. The Hartford, Teach For America — Connecticut's largest contributor, pledged to invest $1 million in the program over five years. This school year is the final year in that five-year commitment by The Hartford, but the company expects future investment in the program.

Eileen Whelley, executive vice president of human resources at The Hartford and a member of the Connecticut Teach For America Advisory Board, said The Hartford is talking with Teach For America administrators about how the company might renew its commitment to the program.

"They are a premier program that is 100 percent devoted to closing the achievement gap in our inner cities," Whelley said. "That mission appealed to us back in 2007 and it still appeals to us today, maybe even more so."

The Hartford's funding allowed the program to bring in 30 teachers to Hartford schools in its first year. There are now 65 Teach For America corps members in Hartford schools.

Nate Snow, executive director for Teach For America — Connecticut, said as a nonprofit organization, Teach For America's work is fueled by investments from the business community, private individuals and others who support its mission.

"We have a theory of change that resonates with certain businesses that we partner with," Snow said. "As we bring corps members into Connecticut, we need resources to do that."

Whelley said investing in education programs like Teach For America is a smart business decision for any corporation.

"One of the challenges of having that achievement gap is that we're not graduating enough of our students in lower-income city schools, and if you don't have high school graduates, you really aren't beginning to have a qualified work force," she said.

Whelley said The Hartford believes Teach For America is making strides to reduce that achievement gap.

"Teach For America Takes the best and the brightest from campuses all over the country, trains them and measures the achievement rates of students in their classrooms," she said. "The data demonstrates that Teach For America corps members are performing better in these schools."

Representatives from The Hartford, and other investors including Travelers, Lincoln Financial and People's Bank, get involved in Teach for America's mission in ways other than financial contributions. Some, like Whelley, serve on the organization's regional advisory board.

"There's a general kind of advising on certain issues and thinking about how we become part of and work in coordination with other community organizations; what is the fabric of this community and how are we using that to guide our work," Snow said.

At Lincoln Financial, which has donated over $200,000 to Teach for America in Hartford over the past five years, employees have taken their involvement one step further. Employees went into a classroom at Hartford's Moylan School, and partnered with a teacher in giving a lesson.

Lincoln Financial Senior Vice President Laura Dambier said employees were thrilled to have that hands-on experience.

"I remember how excited we were to be involved other than just giving that check," she said. "We really got a bird's eye view of what this top notch organization does to provide these educational opportunities. We were taken with the caliber of individuals that work for them."

The group of Lincoln employees who volunteer with Teach For America has grown from 20 to 50. Employees participate in a "pen pal" program, in which they've donated school supplies and books and developed relationships with students by way of written letters. Volunteers now work in two fourth grade classrooms with Teach For America teachers at Milner Elementary School and Dwight-Bellizzi Asian Studies Academy.

And Lincoln Financial continues to expand its efforts. Earlier this year, the Lincoln Financial Foundation announced a $1 million, three-year grant to Teach For America aimed at expanding efforts to recruit and train new teachers who specialize in science and math.

Whelley, of The Hartford, said a partnership between the business community and the education system is a natural one.

"Investing in your community and educating your community makes it stronger," Whelley said.

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