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Williamsburg County teacher Quinn Ranahan introduces her middle-school students to skills and projects that spark an interest in computer science and coding.
Photo by Milton Morris
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Irmo native and Orangeburg elementary-school teacher Julia-Louise Doe works with S.C. students because, she says, “I’m committed to seeing change in my state in my life.”
Photo by Milton Morris
There’s more than just algebra and geometry going on in Quinn Ranahan’s middle-school classes. Day after day, the 25-year-old math teacher sets lofty goals for her students.
“Every day in my classroom, my expectations are for you to do the best you can, so you can go to college or have a career,” Ranahan tells her students at C.E. Murray Middle School in Greeleyville. “The opportunities are limitless, as long as you work hard and do your best every day.”
When Ranahan moved to this small Williamsburg County community two years ago, it was because she wanted to make an impact on kids growing up in a rural area like the one she left in southern Arkansas. Now, having fulfilled her two-year commitment as a Teach For America corps member, she’s staying in South Carolina. She’s built a network of relationships with parents, fellow teachers and community members she says is essential for her students’ success.
“I go to football games, and I see people in this community that I know care about my students as much as I do, if not more,” says Ranahan, now in her third year of teaching. “I’m where I need to be.”
Finding teachers who believe in tapping the potential of every student, then placing them in high-need schools around the state—and hoping they’ll stay—is what Teach For America has been focused on in South Carolina for the past five years. A national nonprofit that recruits leaders to teach and improve learning opportunities for all students, TFA launched in South Carolina in 2011.
That first year, TFA placed a corps of 30 new teachers in 18 schools in four S.C. counties. Today, in its sixth school year in this state, TFA has expanded its reach with a current corps of 100 teachers serving 45 schools in 11 counties.
Every one of those counties has TFA alumni who have chosen to stay in S.C. schools, says Josh Bell, executive director of TFA–South Carolina. But too many others, he says, have been lured away by school districts in other parts of the country. So, in 2015, TFA–South Carolina created RiseSC to recruit new corps members with S.C. ties, hoping they’ll commit long-term to improving education in this state.
“We’re seeing a growing number of people who have roots here, or are from a hometown here, or went to college here, who are three times more likely to stay in South Carolina beyond their two-year commitment,” Bell says.
RiseSC’s strategies include collaborating with TFA’s national recruitment team to identify more high-quality candidates with S.C. connections, as well as focusing regional recruitment on S.C. college campuses and other promising prospects, such as military veterans, teaching assistants and previous TFA applicants who feel unfulfilled in their current careers, Bell says.
It’s off to a good start. RiseSC’s initial goal was to attract 50 percent of incoming corps members with S.C. ties by 2020. Just one year in, TFA blew past that goal with 60 percent of its 2016 corps members having S.C. roots.
TFA–South Carolina knows that 66 percent of its 240 alumni are still working as educators; even more are working in education-related fields. And they know stories of S.C. natives who, in keeping with RiseSC’s goals, have chosen to teach in their home state and stay in S.C. schools when their corps years ended.
Julia-Louise Doe is one of those teachers.
“The minute I walked into this school, I could feel the rightness of it,” says the 26-year-old Doe, an Irmo native who teaches fourth-grade English language arts and social studies at Marshall Elementary School in Orangeburg. She remembers telling herself, “This is where you’re supposed to be, where you can make your impact.”
Unlike many corps members, Doe didn’t come to TFA right out of college. After graduating from Furman University in 2012, she worked in community-service roles for two years with FEMA Corps and City Year, with a growing realization that she could devote her energies to improving opportunities for S.C. students.
“Having an investment in where you’re from and a pride in seeing it get better—there’s a passion there,” she says of TFA teachers who commit to teaching in their home state.
In addition to RiseSC, TFA–South Carolina also launched InnovateSC in 2015, an initiative to expand student opportunities and skills in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and math—to better prepare them for college and 21st-century careers. InnovateSC is training and equipping TFA teachers to lead classes in computer science, after-school coding or robotics clubs, and other activities that expose students to STEM subjects in hands-on ways.
Ranahan’s students, for example, have delved into coding via local day camps for girls and the international “Hour of Code” event that introduces students to computer science through fun projects. Through TFA, she has been certified to teach an exploring computer science class that encourages students to experiment with software and website development.
A third component of TFA’s growth in South Carolina, Bell says, is its alumni impact.
“We now have Teach For America alumni who are principals in the state of South Carolina,” he says. “We have leaders who are invaluable in their organizations, in their schools, in their districts, who got their start in Teach For America. The five years ahead will be successful in large part, I think, because of the foundation our alumni have built throughout the state.”
One of those alumni is Justin Dunham, 27, a TFA corps member from 2012 to 2014. Dunham taught science at Darlington Middle School, in the same part of the state where he grew up.
Now, he is coordinator for an initiative called PULSE (Partners for Unparalleled Local Scholastic Excellence), a public-private partnership that expands learning opportunities for students from pre-K through high school in Hartsville public schools.
“It was hard for me to leave my kids,” Dunham says. But he liked the opportunity PULSE offered to improve student achievement in multiple schools.
Nominated for the 2016 Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award for Excellence, PULSE has been recognized for its initiatives that are boosting reading and math scores among elementary students and providing accelerated learning opportunities for high school students in diverse subjects, including Mandarin Chinese and molecular biology.
“South Carolina is where my heart is,” Dunham says. “I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like what I’m doing matters.”
To learn more about TFA–South Carolina, visit southcarolina.teachforamerica.org. The organization is accepting applications from dynamic leaders interested in classroom teaching positions. Upcoming deadlines to apply are Dec. 9, Jan. 27, 2017, and March 3, 2017. Application instructions are available at teachforamerica.org. To recommend a candidate for the corps, visit teachforamerica.org/refer-a-friend.