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Washington Region's Poorest Areas Have an Abundance of Beginning Teachers

Officials of D.C. and Prince George's schools, mindful of their reliance on a steady stream of recruits, are also trying to raise the caliber of novices through alternative models for recruiting and training. These initiatives seek to lure top talent from universities and from other fields into the classroom. But skeptics say the initiatives might raise false hopes that new teachers can save the lowest-performing schools. Alternative-route teachers account for only about 4 percent of the national teaching force, federal data show, although they make up a much larger share of new teachers.

From Chaos to Learning

Nick Fiorelli, 24, landed in D.C. public schools after spending part of a year rebuilding houses in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. He wanted to use his math education degree to help disadvantaged children, so he came to Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. He's one of nine beginning teachers at a school born from the merger of two struggling schools.

"I can be very forgiving of the errors of youth," said the school's principal, Brian Betts. "If you love kids and believe they can learn with motivation and support, I can help you through the bumps of being a first-year teacher."

One January afternoon, his voice muffled from a lingering cold, Fiorelli delivered a lesson on nuclear energy in fits and starts to 16 sixth-graders.

"When a uranium nucleus splits," he began reading. But soon he stopped to confiscate a deck of UNO cards, a bag of potato chips, a PlayStation 2 game. It all went onto a pile of other contraband next to his overhead projector.

Someone needed to go to the restroom. Someone else wanted water. Fiorelli thanked those who sat quietly. To the others, he said: "You guys are not going to talk over me. We are going to learn. Do I need to call home to everybody's parents, like I did two days ago?"

Fiorelli is brimming with ideas to inspire students, like the X-Y axis taped to the floor of his room. In math, he groups students around the axis and builds lessons around the graph beneath their feet.

But he said it's tough to hold the line between learning and chaos, between friend and authority figure. Fiorelli suspects that he was too soft in the crucial first weeks.

"Veteran teachers say you need to come off really tough," he said. "I came off somewhat tough. Now I'm trying to make up for some lost time."

A square labeled "Behavior Warning" on the whiteboard filled with names as the science lesson wore on. In the end, the class managed to answer two questions about nuclear energy. One boy was in tears.

But Fiorelli seemed to be making strides. One spring day, he started class with a booming voice: "SEAT! . . . SIT! . . . BOOKS ON YOUR DESK!" After handing out pencils and paper, he delivered a lesson on the carbon cycle with few interruptions. Most names on the whiteboard had moved from the "Behavior Warning" box to the "Circle of Productivity."

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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