The status of public school education in Mississippi has been an area of concern for parents and administrators for many years.
Funding, resources and certified teachers are often hard to find in rural areas, including Yazoo City.
One national organization, Teach For America, is trying to change that, by connecting struggling schools to certified teachers and providing resources for those teachers to motivate and inspire students in every classroom.
Ann Shackelford, the director of community partnerships and development for Teach For America in Mississippi, said that for the last 25 years, the organization has been recruiting and training teachers from all over the United States, placing them inside school districts that have the greatest need.
"It's a two-year commitment, much like the Peace Corps," said Shackelford. "It's an alternate route to certifications, so our teachers are certified. We recruit and then train through the summer, and then continue training throughout the year."
Teach for America currently supports the Yazoo City Municipal School District and has provided seven teachers to serve across three schools: Webster Elementary, McCoy Elementary and Woolfolk Middle School.
Some of the teachers are from Yazoo City originally. Shackelford added that Teach For America recruits heavily all over the state of Mississippi to help bring individuals back to communities where they are needed most.
Teach for America is different because many of their teachers do not take the traditional route to teaching. While some members are already certified when they arrive at Teach for America, others have degrees or positions in a field different from teaching. These individuals are trained for six weeks every year at the nationally-sponsored Teach For America Summer Institute, where they receive hands on experience in a classroom setting as well as practice for their certification exams.
Brezana Cross, a Yazoo City native and a member of Teach For America, came home to teach first grade at Webster Elementary School. Cross said that she appreciated her experience in the summer workshops.
"I got to interact with students who were similar to my students, the same socio-economic background, same race,” Cross said. “It gave me the support I needed and the constructive feedback.”
Cross also mentioned that one of the things she has learned from Teach For America is how to be a culturally responsive teacher.
"I have 24 different personalities in this classroom," said Cross. "I understand that my students have different beliefs than me. I can't make assumptions that all these kids are the same because they are not."
Cross said that the public can help her as a teacher by communicating what they need from her and staying positive about education to children to empower them and help them strive to do their best.
Nuwani Irizarry, also with Teach For America, is a non-traditional teacher placed in Webster Elementary to teach first grade.
Irizarry said that she received a lot of professional development in the beginning at the summer workshop, as well as strategies and tools to teach and work in the community that she would be placed in.
"In the classroom, I use positive reinforcement and I check on the students’ emotional needs," said Irizarry. "I think that a lot of the development I got at Teach For America is being paired with the development I'm getting as a teacher now."
Irizarry added that she uses her training to differentiate groups based on skill level or personality levels, focuses on reading, and also finds ways to keep the students accountable for their work. She also mentioned that parents can help by visiting or helping out at school, and that classroom supplies are always appreciated.
Teach For America is not meant to compete with other certified teachers for jobs or positions, but rather to support struggling schools by providing well trained teachers who want to promote the importance of education in the lives of young children.
To learn more about Teach For America, or how you can help or become a part of the program, visit www.teachforamerica.org.