Teach For America is building a movement to ensure that every child in the United States has access to an excellent education. By recruiting leaders to teach in underserved communities, Teach For America reaches more than 750,000 students each year and has built a network of 38,000 people dedicated to improving educational opportunities for kids growing up in poverty.
To expand the human network at the core of its movement, Teach For America built a technology network based on the Cisco infrastructure. Recruiters, corps members, and alumni are now fully connected with easy access to each other and to rich resources that help them fulfill their mission. In 2012-2013, 48,000 people applied and 5800 joined Teach for America, bringing its corps to a record 10,000 teachers placed in classrooms.
As a recruiter, Alexander Donovan’s job is to find strong, involved leaders on New York City college campuses and inspire them to become teachers for 2 years with Teach For America. His job requires person-to-person, boots-on-the-ground engagement and constant communications. Every day, Alexander uses the Teach For America technology network to stay connected with top talent and build “a pipeline of leaders who show promise.”
But Teach For America is not the only organization reaching out to these students. “I work at schools where folks have a lot of options, and we want the top candidates in the classroom,” said Alexander. “We have to be as prompt and available as a for-profit with more resources. We have to maintain a level of connection that matches that.”
Alexander knows how it feels to be recruited and to say yes. He joined Teach For America as a member of the corps and spent 2 years in a Houston classroom. Now, he lives in New York City and shares his experience with graduating seniors, persuading them that the commitment is worth it. This is their opportunity to make a difference and work to eliminate educational inequity in the United States.
“The reality today is a child’s ZIP code often determines his or her educational opportunities,” said Thomas Licciardello, vice president for technology operations at Teach for America. More than 16 million U.S. children live in poverty and often lag behind their peers in educational attainment.
“Our mission is to ensure that kids growing up in poverty have access to as great an education as their wealthier peers,” Thomas said. “We create human capacity in a network of corps members and use our technical network to leverage that human potential effectively.”
To increase the pace of change in educational reform and provide more support for recruiters like Alexander, Teach For America needed better connections between offices and people. Disparate local networks and lack of affordable connections hampered the organization’s growth, as well as their ability to recruit today’s digitally sophisticated students.
Timing is everything in post-college career placement. Identifying prospective corps members begins the fall before graduation and has a 9-month cycle for application, selection, training, placement, and support. “Everything has to hit,” said Thomas. “We can’t miss a beat.”
In 2008, Teach For America received a 4-year commitment from Cisco to help build the critical infrastructure needed to grow the human capacity for its grass-roots movement. Networks in 20 offices were standardized and connected to the main office and data center. The organization expanded to 46 locations and increased staff at all levels with access to WiFi, Voice Over IP, and video conferencing. A more reliable virtual private network (VPN) puts the resources recruiters need at their fingertips so they can get them to prospects in a timely way.
For Alexander, the network is essential. “I’m maintaining relationships with hundreds of people,” he said. “Technology helps me streamline my work. I can effectively communicate in an authentic way with a lot more people. I can maintain more relationships and maintain them in a more dynamic way.”
“The network infrastructure enables us to be flexible and mobile,” said Thomas. “We span the country. We operate where we are needed.” Standardizing on the Cisco networking platform in data centers and locations helped the central IT office improve support and reduce costs.
Crystal Tang, director of recruitment for the New York region, manages 5 recruiters who spend more time on campuses, at coffee shop meetings, and working from home than in the office. “I always have my laptop with me, and we use WebEx for virtual connections to see people, have chats, and easily connect with people in other offices,” said Crystal.
By eliminating the cost of office-to-office phone calls, Teach For America has more money to invest in people and has increased collaboration across the organization. According to Crystal: “We spend more time working on projects that will matter for our work more broadly. We can focus on bringing great teachers to kids and ensuring an equal opportunity for them.”
“We’ve been able to leverage Cisco core networking technologies to support our staff, who are the ones who support the teachers who ultimately support the students,” said Thomas.
Since the upgrade, Teach For America has placed the largest, most diverse group of corps members into a record number of classrooms. In 2012-2013, 48,000 people applied for 5800 teaching positions. A record 10,000 first- and second-year corps members taught more than 750,000 students in classrooms nationwide. In 2011, Tennessee and North Carolina ranked Teach For America as a top teacher provider in terms of student outcomes.
Beyond the classroom impact, recent studies show that the Teach For America experience is creating lifelong leaders for change in education. With more than 28,000 alumni, including Alexander, corps members work at every level of education, policy, and other professions as educational leaders, advocates, and supporters.
Alexander tells prospective teachers: “You can pursue your passion. You don’t preclude that option by teaching for two years. You will become invested in the work we do in the long term. No matter what you do, you will be active.”
Read more about Teach for America.