JACKSON Timothy Leake is a long way from home. He moved to Mississippi right after he graduated from Yale University in 2015. Leake studied math at Yale, but by the end of his time there, he decided he really wanted to learn how to teach. The Mississippi Teacher Corps provided the perfect opportunity.
The Corps is a small alternate-route teacher program based out of the University of Mississippi that enables a group of typically recent undergraduates to take master's courses while teaching for two years, leaving with their master's degree if they complete the program.
The Corps has 20 to 30 students in each class, with about half from Mississippi and half from out-of-state. Its cohorts are much smaller than other alternate-route programs like Teach for America, which also operates in the state.
Recently, MTC started focusing on teacher retention, which the program initially did not do well but has improved on in recent years.
"(We are) seeking out opportunities for them to advance their career if they have ambitions of moving up in education," Dr. Hunter Taylor, the recruiting coordinator for MTC, said of recruits. "And maybe if they have interest in policy or want to get into civic organizations or city planning, we want to make sure that they're aware of a lot of opportunities in these communities."
Mississippi has a teacher shortage, particularly in majority-black school districts, a study published in the 2017 Mississippi Economic Review found. MTC places its teachers in critical-needs areas, primarily in the northern part of the state, so the students can take their graduate courses on campus in Oxford twice a month.
The Mississippi Department of Education lists 48 school districts as "critical shortage areas," on a list from 2014.
Leake, who is from Bloomington, Ind., originally taught Algebra I at North Panola High School during his first year with the Corps. His biggest challenge in his first year of teaching was implementing a new curriculum and teaching students how to justify their answers on mathematic problem-solving questions, he said.
North Panola is in a district with access to limited resources, and he spent time tutoring students and trying to show them opportunities for growth. North Panola is a majority-black district, and in 2014 it had a teacher shortage.
As an outsider, Leake was shocked to see the segregated school he worked in.
"The community where I live, for example, is segregated in many ways. There aren't many white students in public schools ...," Leake told the Jackson Free Press. "That was one of the biggest shocks of moving down here and seeing the enduring division. At the same time talking to people around here and learning about them, there's a lot of kindness and care and (a) supportive environment."
Leake said he was able to build relationships with individuals in the community—and in turn with his students—despite being an outsider.
"There are a lot of very bright and talented students in North Panola, but there isn't always a history and tradition that would lead them to success," he said. "There is a little bit of a lack of knowledge about what opportunities there are and knowledge of how to get there."
That's where Leake, as a Yale alumnus, could help his students. In his second year teaching at North Panola High, he taught calculus. He said he wrote several recommendations this year.
"I think all of the calculus class is going to college. ... It's great to see the accomplishments," Leake said.
The Mississippi Department of Education gives teachers in the Corps a three-year provisional teaching license, but the schools technically employ them and must offer them renewal contracts like all other public-school teachers in the state.
Keeping Teachers Teaching
Dr. Joe Sweeney, the director of the MTC program, says his team does its best to keep teachers in education by building strong partnerships with schools as well as offering additional incentives for teachers who stay an extra year in a critical-needs school. Through the university's foundation, the Corps can offer some teachers a $1,000 to $3,000 bonus for their third year teaching in the state's public school system. About 80 percent of students who start the Corps make it through the program, Sweeney estimates.
The Legislature, as well as the university, funds the Corps, and so far budget cuts have been minimal, not affecting the program's impact on the state. Data from the Corps show it has graduated 569 people since the program started in 1989. In the last five graduating classes, about 26 percent of graduates stayed in education in Mississippi. And more than half of the graduates in the last five years have stayed in teaching throughout the country.
The Corps administrators try to recruit candidates who plan to stay in education after they graduate with their master's degree. Leake, for his part, plans to stay in education for a while—but is shifting to a private school. He accepted a job teaching middle school math at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Jackson and will start there this fall.
"I think the Mississippi Teacher Corps did a good job helping its graduates stay in the teaching field," Leake said.
If he had stayed in public education, Leake could have received an extra bonus and possibly get recommended for a five-year license at the end of the program. When asked if he plans to leave Mississippi anytime soon, Leake said he is in no rush.
"I'm certainly in no hurry to leave ... but yes, I'd like to stay in education," Leake said. "Teaching is certainly a job that could remain for a while."
While the Corps fills a small part of the teacher-shortage gap in the state, a recently published study in the Mississippi Economic Review shows that while programs like incentives and alternate-route programs (like the Corps or Teach for America) are important efforts, "they are only small bandages on a major wound."
"Inputs to schools matter," researcher David Berliner wrote in the study. "As wonderful as some teachers and school are, most cannot eliminate the inequalities that have roots outside their doors and that influence events within them."
"This principle holds true when addressing the problem of teacher shortages in Mississippi," the Mississippi State researchers who published the MER study conclude.
"The factors that most influence the shortage extend outside the world of education and education policy. They include people's perceptions and ideas about race, the economics of place and what makes a place a valuable place to live, and the economic health of places."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story called St. Andrew's a private academy. Representatives from St. Andrew's have asked us to change that to say "private school." This story has also been updated to clarify which researchers published the teacher shortage study, from Mississippi State University. Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at email@example.com.