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Memphis’ newest teacher training school launches next week

A nonprofit institution, Relay Graduate School of Education serves more than 1,400 teachers in nine sites and 300 leaders nationwide.
A nonprofit institution, Relay Graduate School of Education serves more than 1,400 teachers in nine sites and 300 leaders nationwide.

When Memphis’ newest teacher training program opens next week, it won’t be according to its founders’ original plan.

Relay Graduate School of Education had planned to open at the University of Memphis, but that avenue closed earlier this year after faculty at the university objected. The graduate school has yet to establish a partnership with any particular charter network or district to work with its teachers, as Relay campuses in other cities have done.

So the school, the latest in a series of replicas of an innovative New York City program, is going it alone, at least at the outset. And with the first day of classes less than a week away, it is still rounding up students.

“We don’t have any partnership agreements in place with any schools,” said Brendan Egan, director of operations for the Memphis campus. “I would say we work in collaboration with schools.”

Relay aims to upend the way teachers are trained to work in urban schools. Unlike traditional programs, which have drawn criticism for poorly preparing urban teachers by prioritizing theory over practical skills, Relay focuses on hands-on practice and only enrolls teachers who already work full time in schools. It also makes graduation dependent on whether a student can prove that his or her own students have learned — something that traditional graduate programs do not do.

Relay’s repudiation of traditional teacher training has made it a target for supporters of those programs, including the University of Memphis Faculty Senate. It also means that its local success is in some ways connected to broader efforts underway to reshape the city’s long-struggling schools.

Indeed, Relay’s model — which was developed by a group of New York City charter operators — appeals to the growing cadre of Memphis leaders who say a new approach to teaching is needed if the city is to improve outcomes for its many struggling students and schools. The city is in the midst of a sweeping effort to improve its 59 “priority schools,” or schools with test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide, and some of the same philanthropists who have donated to that push are supporting Relay, as well. Eventually, the graduate school plans to become self-sustaining from tuition alone.

“Unfortunately we have about 25,000 kids who are sitting in priority schools,” said Michelle Armstrong, who has worked as both a teacher and principal in the city and now is Relay’s dean. “When you think about Memphis Teaching Residency and Teach for America, there is plenty of room at the table for all of us to sit and figure out how we can improve things for those 25,000 kids.”

Memphis Teacher Residency places aspiring teachers as apprentices in experienced teachers’ classrooms for a year while they also study how to teach. Teach for America, the decades-old national program that sends top college graduates to high-needs schools after a summer of training, is contributing 110 new teachers to Memphis schools this year.

Relay’s two programs mirror those two nonprofits. A two-year Relay residency program, with a tuition of up to $6,5oo, will let aspiring teachers work under experienced educators, or “lead teachers,” for a year before letting them have their own classroom. And a separate program, costing up to $17,500 for two years, will allow educators who are already in the classroom to get Relay’s brand of training. If completed successfully, both programs result in state certification and a master’s degree.

In the five states where Relay has operated until now, the graduate school places residents and trains new teachers at “partner” charter networks and nonprofits. For example, all first-year teachers in the New Orleans College Prep charter network take Relay courses and work with a mentor from the charter network at the same time. In New York, the school places residents in the Achievement First charter network, KIPP NYC, and the nonprofit tutoring group Blue Engine.

The Memphis campus is working with a “handful of public schools in Memphis,” but there is no official partnership with local school districts yet, Egan said. Shelby County Schools has no money invested in working with Relay like it does with Teach for America, but the district does view the graduate school “as a pipeline to get candidates to serve in high-need areas,” said district spokesman Christian Ross.

There are instead “anchor partners,” or schools that are encouraging their teachers to apply to Relay.

“Following a model we’ve successfully implemented at our other campuses, Relay Memphis will launch this year with a few anchor school partners,” said Tim Saintsing, Relay’s chief operating officer. “Over time, we expect to grow these and other partnerships, based on the demand for our programs here in Memphis.”

What that demand will look like is unclear. Although the deadline to apply was June 10, Egan said Relay is still accepting applications and working to finalize the first cohort of 20 to 25 students — who are set to begin classes in less than a week, on July 13.

And while Egan said he expects the majority of participants ultimately to come from schools in the state-run Achievement School District, which is tasked with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools, so far most of the teachers accepted work at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school under the purview of Shelby County Schools.

One challenge that could impede enrollment is that teachers in the residency program must spend half of every Friday at Relay reviewing teaching techniques and getting feedback from instructors and classmates based on video footage of their own teaching.

Allowing teachers to step away for part of the day every week could be a heavy lift for schools with staffs that already are stretched thin. But at Freedom Prep, students are dismissed early on Friday afternoons so that teachers can have additional training, making it possible for those in the residency program to work with Relay.

“Freedom Prep is a place where we have a strong culture of feedback and development,” said Roblin Webb, the school’s founder. “This provides us much more bandwidth to be able to support the new teachers in our building.”

Starting July 13, Relay students will spend that first week of classes at Freedom Prep. During the fall and spring semesters, students will meet with Armstrong twice a month in the evening, and spend one Saturday a month with an adjunct professor who teaches literacy and math. Forty percent of the curriculum is online so that students have some flexibility with their schedules, Armstrong said.

That curriculum has been in use in Relay’s five locations since the first site opened in New York in 2012.

In Tennessee, Relay received authorization in January from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to operate in Memphis as a postsecondary educational institution. Memphis will join Delaware and the Philadelphia/Camden, N.J., area as Relay’s newest sites, bringing the total number of campuses to eight. Relay now trains 1,400 teachers across its locations every year, according to its website.

The school’s trajectory has its local founders optimistic, despite their early road bumps.

“Relay is here in Tennessee, and we are excited to be here,” Egan said. “We’re here for the long haul; we’re not just looking to do a program and leave. We are a higher education institution here.”

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