By Elijah McKenzie

Teach Kentucky will be commemorating its 15-year anniversary at a private event at the Louisville Water Tower Park on Thursday evening.

The organization — whose motto is “Creating the opportunity for national recruitment for local education” — has brought 272 top college grads to teach in underserved middle and high school public classrooms, according to a news release.

An additional 45 teachers, selected from 350 applicants and hailing from 23 different states, have been recruited for the coming year, the organization said.

Teach Kentucky Founder | Rowan Claypool
Rowan Claypool

“We want to keep growing the program for the next 15 years. This celebration is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to our donors, to the community and most importantly, to our teachers,” said Rowan Claypool, the Teach Kentucky founder, in a news release.

Even so, the anniversary comes amid unrest in the ranks of teachers locally and nationally. Protesting what they say are inadequate resources, low pay and a general lack of commitment to public education, schoolteachers across the country have taken to the streets.

The movement began in West Virginia, where the median annual salaries for public school teachers were the fourth-lowest in the nation during the 2016-17 school years.

In Arizona, teachers joined the fight because their salaries have gotten so low that school districts in the state have begun recruiting teachers from as far as the Philippines.

And in Kentucky, teachers rallied in Frankfort over pension concerns this year. In Louisville, teachers and their union are worried as the local school district is facing a potential state takeover.

“Despite the noise, teachers are still coming to Louisville,” Claypool told Insider. He pointed out that the teacher-led strikes don’t seem to have discouraged new graduates from pursuing a career in education.

Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2014 and 2024, there will be 1.9 million new job openings for teachers. For Claypool, the key was to find those teachers and convince them to make a career in Kentucky.

Claypool says he founded Teach Kentucky in 2003 as a way to attract high-quality graduates who typically wouldn’t think of working in Louisville.

Low salaries have plagued American public schools, making it difficult for school districts to recruit and retain well-qualified teachers. In fact, all 50 states in the U.S. have reported teacher shortages for the 2017-18 school years — a challenge that Teach Kentucky is taking head-on.

“Many of our teachers are buying homes, getting married and starting families — all signs they intend to stay here,” Claypool said. “A win for us is a new resident who becomes a new teacher through an alternative route masters program and then stays long-term, which a majority of our teachers do.”

The “alternative route” refers to the Teach Kentucky program with the University of Louisville that helps students receive a masters of arts in education while they simultaneously earn a salary as a Jefferson County teacher.

Sandra Hinojosa Hubbard, Teach Kentucky board chairwoman, said in the release: “For us, the impact on the lives of the students inspires everything we do. We love our role in talent attraction and retention. It’s an often overlooked part of what we do at Teach Kentucky.”

According to Claypool, there are 45 essential steps to become a Teach Kentucky instructor. It starts with an online application, then moves to a transcript evaluation, and is followed up with a formal interview with Jefferson County Public Schools, UofL and Teach Kentucky. One week later, they’re given the invitation to join the program.

Blake Johnson is the Recruitment and Program Coordinator for Teach Kentucky and works with candidates that have a very casual knowledge of the organization and guides them through the application process.

“There’s a strong emphasis on STEM recruitment and diversity,” Johnson said, referring to JCPS’ strategic goal of having more than 20 percent teachers of color in the next couple of years. “Last year, Teach Kentucky recruited 33 percent teachers of color and about 50 percent of our cohorts were STEM-eligible teachers.”

After being accepted into the program, candidates still need to fill out a formal application for university enrollment, complete exams, and obtain letters of recommendation. But Teach Kentucky staff coaches applicants through each step so they don’t get stuck on the small stuff.

These processes all culminate in an event known as recruitment weekend, where candidates are invited to visit Louisville firsthand and meet with local teachers, principles, and university advisers to help get them started with their new career.

“We want to show that Teach Kentucky is way beyond getting a teachers certification,” Claypool said. “It’s about being part of a community of educators that have been in this for a long time that are still committed to it.”

By the end of the weekend, veteran teachers host intimate dinners at their homes, which Claypool said helps demonstrate that it’s possible to come to Louisville and own a home on a teacher’s salary.

The program also highlights the cultural wealth that exists in Louisville by shuttling candidates around on trolley tours from Churchill Downs to Frankfort Avenue.

“People come with very little knowledge at all about Louisville,” Claypool said. “We want to showcase that you can have a great life as a teacher here.”

Stephanie Rogers, a candidate from Pleasantville, N.Y., who attended one of Teach Kentucky’s recruitment weekends, said that she was interested in the program because it helps new teachers find their professional footing.

“You can tell just by meeting all the teachers, that this is a community, that all of Louisville is behind this,” Rogers said. “In comparison to other teacher certification programs, this program really cares about making sure you get help every step of the way, because no matter what, your first year teaching is going to be a tough year. So it prepares you and makes sure you can enter your classroom prepared to give it your best.”

Other candidates were just as interested in Louisville as a city well-suited for young professionals, citing the Olmsted-designed parks system and the oodles of eclectic events that can be found all over town.

“I never would have expected all the farmers markets and the massive golden David in downtown,” said Sarah Fall, a Teach Kentucky candidate from Hanover, N.H. “There’s a lot of hip culture, which is not something I expected, and I think that’s something really special that I haven’t seen in any other city.”

Claypool said teachers from past to present will be in attendance at its anniversary party — even if they don’t live or teach in Kentucky anymore.

“Some of our recruits have moved on to work in other school districts in other states, but have still kept in touch with Teach Kentucky,” Claypool said. “It’s a testament to the program. That’s why we’re inviting them all back here to celebrate with us — back to where it all started.”