Director of Post-Secondary Strategy and Programming at KIPP New Orleans
This is the first post in our Tomorrow’s Teachers Series, which looks at New Orleans “Grow Your Own” Program, a part of the state’s Grow Your Own Initiative. “Grow Your Own” initiatives seek to find great teachers locally, developing communities’ young people to become educators in their own school system. At NSNO, we are raising funds to support these programs. Currently, three local schools – Booker T. Washington High School, John F. Kennedy High School, and Warren Easton Charter High School are involved. We hope the work can expand to more high schools soon, as we feel it is a crucial part of finding strong new teachers and ending the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention in our city.
We’ll be profiling current New Orleans public school students who are part of this program as well as the teachers helping them prepare for that future. We’ll also meet school team members, like paraprofessionals, who are preparing for roles as full-time teachers. In this first piece, we focus on the KIPP New Orleans Schools Alumni Teaching Force. Currently, in this program, high school seniors who are interested in a career as an educator student-teach in high school in preparation for a full-time teaching job after college graduation. For our first piece, we’re getting to know the educator in charge of the program–Scarlet Cornelius.
New Orleans, like many cities nationally, is facing a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. But a growing group of students are preparing our city for a different reality.
Last spring, students at Booker T. Washington High School and John F. Kennedy High School filled out an “interest survey” about classes they wanted to take in the year ahead. One course, “Foundations of Education,” had thirty open spots across the two campuses. Over sixty students wanted to sign up.
They wanted to be part of an in-demand program: the KIPP New Orleans Schools Alumni Teaching Force. The program is led by Scarlet Cornelius, who also teaches the Foundations of Education Course. They hope to expand it next year to meet demand.
Students that take the course get the chance to test out a career in education. They serve as student-teachers while in high school. Then, they can continue the program through college with summer teaching internships and ongoing support from Scarlet and her team. Sixty-five college students are enrolled in the program right now. When they graduate with their bachelor’s degree, they’ll have a guaranteed job at a KIPP New Orleans school.
Cornelius’ high schoolers join her for Foundations of Education three times a week. They cover pedagogy, learning skillful teacher moves, a history of public education in this country, and issues of educational inequity. Students also get a chance to try out teaching themselves. They work alongside mentor teachers at the program’s partner campuses, KIPP Central City Primary (KCCP) or Edward Hynes UNO Charter School. Cornelius’ own daughter is a kindergartner in one of the student-teachers’ classrooms.
Cornelius says that many of her students aren’t certain they want to be teachers, but they are eager to learn and explore. Even when school was virtual during the early stages of the pandemic, her group of student-teachers showed up for their course over Zoom and their breakout-room teaching sessions. Cornelius was impressed; it was a time when attendance was flagging nationwide.
“Kids love it,” she says. “It’s a testament to the students that they joined every day in a virtual world.”
Cornelius thinks young people are particularly drawn to the work once they begin student-teaching and get to know their own students.
“My belief is that hands-on teaching experience is what’s going to sell you on education,” Cornelius explains. “I can do whatever I want in this classroom, but what’s actually going to sell you is those meaningful connections and relationships that you make with students.”
Cornelius relates to this. She grew up in Louisiana and attended Tulane University. As she entered senior year at Tulane, Cornelius’ parents urged her to go to law school, but she felt that education might be the right path for her. She signed up for Teach For America and began teaching middle school math in Jefferson Parish in 2004. She intended to teach for two years and go to law school–but as she got to know her students, she felt her plans shifting.
“Teaching knew me better than I knew myself,” she explains.
She kept with it, and in 2006, she took a job in Orleans Parish on the founding team of a new school, KIPP Believe College Prep. She taught math to 5th through 7th graders there for the next six years.
She built incredibly strong relationships with her students, and eventually, a group of KIPP Believe College Prep alumni attending Frederick Douglass High School (then KIPP Renaissance High School) reached out. They missed learning from Cornelius, and they asked her to come to Douglass, too. At the same time, the school was looking for an assistant principal. Cornelius took the job.
Then, in 2014, as her former KIPP Believe College Prep students were graduating from Douglass, Cornelius left the role of assistant principal and began to work full time to help found the KIPP New Orleans Schools’ postsecondary support program, KIPP Through College. At this point, she had followed some of her students for almost a decade.
“I was trying to really understand the entire journey, so that I could be a valuable resource along that journey,” she explains. “I’m just honored to be on their journey.”
That’s when her former principal, Joey LaRoche, reached out with an idea. By 2019, LaRoche was the Chief Strategy Officer for KIPP New Orleans Schools, and was experiencing the same teacher recruitment and retention challenges faced by schools nationwide. He realized that a program to help KIPP students and alumni become teachers could be exactly what the network needed. Over a dozen alumni were already thriving as KIPP New Orleans employees and teachers, and LaRoche wanted a formalized path for current students. He asked Cornelius to take it on.
She jumped at the chance. She began in the 2019-2020 school year with a cohort of seventeen students at Booker T. Washington High School, and they taught at KIPP Central City Primary. The program has grown each year since. Cornelius’ first class of the Alumni Teaching Program are now two years from graduating from college. They’re student-teaching each summer, and they’ll have roles waiting for them as KIPP New Orleans Schools educators when they graduate.
Cornelius is clear on where she wants the program to go from here. She’s connected with other schools across the city, like Warren Easton Charter High School, to collaborate with their teacher preparation programs. She’s also partnered with Live Oak Wilderness Camp, The 18th Ward, and Breakthrough New Orleans to offer more summer teaching/coaching opportunities for alums. She’s talked with alternative certification providers and colleges about how to help students earn their teaching license through the program.
She also hopes to one day step down from her role. She loves the work, but believes she’s not the person who should ultimately be leading the program. She’d like to work for, not as, the leader of KIPP New Orleans Schools Alumni Teaching Force. And she has some candidates in mind.
“In two years,” she says, “I believe this program should be run by one of my alums.”