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Education & Teaching

SETH Helps Career Changer Segue
into DC Classroom

By Jon Hussey

blackboard with chalk and eraser

McKenna Lewis always wanted to be a teacher. Even as a child, she honed her teaching skills on her younger, and often defiant, sister. But like the professional aspirations of so many children, life led her in another direction. After studying mass media at Hampton University, Lewis built a career in marketing and advertising at the Washington Post.

“When I discussed my career plans with my teachers in high school they discouraged me from pursuing education,” said Lewis. “Since I respected them and had good relationships with them I followed their advice. “

Still, that desire to be a teacher would nag her every September as she saw students heading back to school.

Six years into her tenure with the Washington Post, Lewis found the Transitioning Our Provisional Stars program at American University’s School of Education, Teaching, and Health.

Soon her childhood dream became reality.

The TOPS program, which began in 2003 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, was created to train and place new teachers (particularly mid-career professionals) in teaching positions within D.C. Public Schools. In partnership with D.C. Teaching Fellows, Teach for America, and the D.C. Public Schools, SETH recruited and trained more than 200 new teachers and placed them in 88 high-needs schools in Washington, D.C., during the five-year grant.

Lewis excelled as one of the 200 new teachers. She completed the program in 2006, at the age of 33, and continued teaching at Emery Elementary School in northeast D.C., where she was placed during her time in TOPS.

Now completed, the grant has produced data—and teachers—that defy current trends in education. While schools are struggling to hold on to teachers, and many recent college graduates are leaving the profession within three years, mid-career professionals in SETH’s TOPS program had an 88 percent retention rate.

“The TOPS program allowed me to learn and share with my cohort, and the professors were all practitioners, not just theorists,” said Lewis. “They were able to speak to my situations with authority because they had worked in the field.”

Apart from gaining licensure and classroom training in a D.C. public school, TOPS provided teachers with the opportunity to take additional coursework to receive a master’s degree. Ninety-five percent of participants earned the advanced degree, a stark contrast to the 44 percent of DCPS teachers who had provisional or no teaching licenses when the grant started in 2003.

“I used to tell my students I may be new to education, but I am not new,” added Lewis “I had life and work experiences that were different from a new teacher coming out of a school of education.”

After four years of teaching in D.C., Lewis has moved to Baltimore—another city with a troubled school system. SETH is now one year into a new grant, Capital Excellence, that is finding more lawyers, journalists, and professionals willing to take that mid-career leap of faith. SETH is making sure there will be another highly qualified career-switcher ready to take Lewis’s place in the D.C. public school system.