Board of Teaching should respect principals’ requests

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

Unfortunately the Minnesota Board of Teaching recently said no to requests from two principals. The school directors asked to hire teachers they considered outstanding.

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.”

Let’s look at Hiawatha Academy, which had some requests approved and two rejected by the board. In May 2012, the Minnesota Department of Education named Hiawatha, in south Minneapolis, the state’s most effective school at “reducing the achievement gap” among schools serving student populations with more than 50 percent of students from low-income families. In 2011 and 2012, the Star Tribune named Hiawatha as one of the top 10 “Beat the Odds” metro area schools in reading and math, based on statewide test scores and the high percentage of students from low-income families; 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. Eli Kramer, Hiawatha’s executive director, said 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.

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.”

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.”

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 the Board of Teaching would meet again on Aug. 2. The schools can reapply; Kramer told me that he will. 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’d say yes.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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