James Curran chose to work in South Dakota over living in California and pursuing a Ph.D. He says that's "the best decision I ever made."
That's part of why I like him.
Curran is executive director for Teach for America in South Dakota. TFA works like a domestic, education-focused Peace Corps, recruiting new graduates from a variety of academic disciplines and universities nationwide to teach in underserved schools with lots of low-income students. South Dakota's branch of TFA, based in Mission, currently oversees 76 young teachers placed in Indian schools around the state.
After teaching in Phoenix as part of Teach for America, Curran came to South Dakota in 2007 to coach teachers in the South Dakota office of Teach for America, based in Mission. He returned to Wisconsin to help family in 2009, then returned to Mission in 2011 to work as TFA's executive director.
I've given Curran a bit of a hard time in past blog coverage, saying that filling classrooms with a stream of rookie teachers who rotate out every two years is a suboptimal solution for gaps in South Dakota's K-12 schools. But Curran says with conviction that he's seen the difference that TFA can make in schools.
That difference comes not from any TFA secret sauce. It comes, says Curran, from a belief system that we can find in many teachers and many school systems and that all can adopt. Central to TFA's beliefs is the notion, based on plenty of experience and evidence, that low-income kids have as much potential as higher-income kids and can even outperform their advantaged peers in the right conditions.
Creating those right conditions means coaching teachers to develop strong vision and leadership skills. Teaching is inherently a leadership activity: every teacher leads children in conversations and practice. TFA says leadership includes setting high goals for oneself, one's students, one's school, and one's community. TFA teachers root their goals in what families and the community want, which means TFA teachers must work hard to find out what those folks want. That's a huge exercise in organization and leadership, far beyond simply plopping someone into a classroom to keep order from eight to four.
Curran says fostering leadership among these rookie teachers has an immediate impact in the classroom. He sees his teachers come back from Pine Ridge and Standing Rock and elsewhere with great stories of student achievement. But he also sees what bringing out that achievement does to those teachers. Another of TFA's core beliefs is that seeing these kids achieve, low-income kids too often dismissed by legislators and grim statistics, changes the lives of their teachers. Whether those TFA teachers stay in education (and many do, says Curran: a third of TFA alumni since 1990 are still in the classroom) or go on to leadership roles in business, public policy, what have you, they become lifelong advocates for educational equity. They don't see reservation schools as lost causes. They believe that kids at Sisseton and Little Wound can knock the test-score socks off kids at Harrisburg and Spearfish. They believe that we can engage low-income parents and community members as allies in education reform and leaders in their own right.
TFA is teaching kids, and teaching them well, but it is also building leaders among its teaching corps and among the parents and community members whom they engage to take ownership of their schools and demand better.
* * *
To support TFA's efforts in South Dakota, Curran spends about half of his time as exec working on outreach and fundraising. Those efforts included successfully lobbying for two one-time appropriations from the South Dakota Legislature of $250,000. That money, appropriated in 2012 and 2013, was match money, an incentive to draw more of the private contributions on which TFA relies to pay for intensive and ongoing training for its new teachers. (Remember, school districts pay TFA teacher salaries as they would any other teacher salary, plus a recruitment fee, as districts would pay any employment agency that would help them fill openings.)
The state's willingness to match dollars resonated with donors more strongly and quickly than Curran hoped, and TFA returned to the Legislature in 2014 to seek continued support. Unfortunately, even though the state admits it cannot fill the gaps TFA fills in reservation schools, even though TFA appears to be working well for South Dakota, the Legislature chose not to continue its investment in TFA.
That retreat doesn't shut TFA's doors. It just means TFA has less money and can't expand as much as Curran had hoped. While TFA had fewer applicants this year than last, Curran says he never has trouble finding recruits who want to come to South Dakota, and with the Legislature's funding, he could easily have placed 45 new teachers here (45 young people working hard, doing good, buying stuff, paying sales tax!) instead of the 36 in this year's teaching cohort.
Curran has come to Mission to serve children, parents, and communities. His organization is doing work that the State of South Dakota says it can't. He is helping change attitudes toward Indian kids and schools. He is helping build a growing corps of teachers and leaders (that phrase should be redundant) with an ongoing commitment to work and policies that support every child's right to a fair and free education.
That's the bigger part of why I like him.