The Virginia schools in which teachers might make the most difference are often in remote places or urban areas with staff shortages. Now a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Education and the national New Teacher Project is making it easier for willing teachers to give those schools a try.
Until recently, a prospective teacher in Virginia had to apply to individual schools in search of a position. Under the new venture, called Teach for Virginia, prospective teachers can send their resumes to schools throughout the commonwealth with a single application.
The candidates are considered for positions in rural and urban areas, especially for subjects such as special education, math and science that are likely to have teacher shortages. Schools will then interview applicants for their specific openings.
"Those people who want to go where they're needed most can fill out a single online application, and the divisions know we're referring quality candidates to them," said Richard Shackell, the Richmond-based operations manager for Teach for Virginia.
So far, Shackell said, the program has received more than 1,100 applications. Of those, 72 have been referred to at least one school and an additional 250 are about to be referred. Fifty-two applicants have been rejected, and the rest remain under consideration.
The program began in March to recruit individuals who are interested in a lifelong teaching career but don't necessarily have experience in the field. Applicants who are not licensed to teach must be eligible to receive a provisional license by having either majored in a subject or completed substantial coursework in it. In addition, they must be registered to take Praxis, the teacher certification exam, and have a minimum grade-point average of 2.75.
According to Shackell, Teach for Virginia also is looking for teachers with less tangible qualifications: a history of community involvement; achievement in a chosen career, even if it's not in education; and most important, a commitment to teaching in understaffed schools.
Darrell Smith, 50, an Alexandria teacher who is serving as an ambassador for the program, has been teaching since 1975. He has taught in elementary through high school, in his native Louisiana as well as in Nigeria. In his role promoting the program, Smith said he hopes to inspire other educators with what he describes as a "passion for public education."
Formerly a first-grade teacher at Mount Vernon Community School in Del Ray, Smith will teach kindergarten in the coming year at Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics in Alexandria. He said the opportunities offered by Teach for Virginia in many ways mirror his experience in St. Landry Parish in southern Louisiana, an area locals call the "Cajun Prairie."
Many of the understaffed schools targeted by Teach for Virginia are beset by poverty. The students, Smith noted, often live in single-parent homes and might not have computers or other amenities of more privileged children elsewhere. But, he said, the rewards make the challenges worthwhile.
"When you move into a community and invest time there, parents and students really become committed, and it's a real team effort," Smith said. "You can invest time in the life of a child and expose students to many things they would not have been exposed to had we not been there."
Rebekka Hennigan, 28, a Detroit teacher, was offered four Virginia positions after entering the program and said she is leaning toward a middle school outside Richmond. Hennigan said that participating in Teach for Virginia made getting a job far easier than it had been in Michigan.
"Kids that need you the most tend give you the most back when you work with them," she said.
Although certified teachers can participate in Teach for Virginia, such candidates are usually already employed as teachers and well-positioned to apply to other schools. Because a new teacher usually can apply for certification only when sponsored by a school providing a job offer, Teach for Virginia can help streamline the process of making the connection.
The application deadline for licensed candidates is Monday and July 19 for unlicensed candidates. The Web site for Teach for Virginia is www.teachforvirginia.org.