There's a certain snap to Raquel Allen's classroom. Perhaps it's the bright white sweatshirts that her sixth-graders in Walker-Jones Elementary are wearing.
Or the way her students straighten up before they march down the street to a basketball game at a neighboring school in Washington. Last spring, these students scored near the top of the school in end-of-year testing.
"Uniforms in my class are voluntary, but they all wear them. It helps them feel good about themselves," she says. (Students help her haul the sweatshirts to her car to take home for washing every other day.) When a family can't afford the cost of the uniform, she finds donors. When one lanky sixth-grader couldn't come up with dark slacks, she loaned her the pants from her own former Air Force uniform.
Miss Allen is one of more than 3,000 veterans who moved from the military into the nation's classrooms, as part of the highly successful but little known Troops to Teachers (TTT) program. The $65 million program was launched in 1994 to help the United States military ease over a drastic post-cold-war downsizing. It provides stipends to retiring military personnel to seek certification and grants to school districts as an incentive to hire them. Now that the big personnel cuts are over, the program is due to be phased out by October 1999.
But some educators are hoping to interest Congress in keeping the program alive, not because it is still needed by the US military, but because it has been so helpful to American education.
"Troops to Teachers really did provide for the first time a sample of people who are nontraditional teachers, and a very rich pool for the future of teaching," says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, a Washington-based research organization.
Traditionally, the nation's teachers have come into the classroom straight from college via teacher-education programs. Most are female, white, and are not interested in teaching in urban or rural schools.
What distinguishes the Troops to Teachers program is its ability to attract more men and minorities with solid life experiences as well as an interest in teaching needed subjects (mathematics, science, and special education) in hard-to-staff areas. This pool of more experienced, nontraditional teachers could be a pattern for how to meet expected shortfalls in teachers in the future, she adds.
"Studies show that the nation will need 2 million teachers in the next 10 years, but the demand is not uniform. These people are not only willing but eager to teach in high-demand areas," says Ms. Feistritzer, whose organization released a new report on Troops to Teachers on Aug. 27.
According to this survey, when compared with other first-year teachers, more than 75 percent were rated above average or higher by principals and superintendents. TTT teachers also had five times the retention rate of traditional teachers: 85 percent of those employed in 1994-97 are still teaching.
The survey also noted important differences in the attitudes between traditional teachers and TTT recruits toward teaching to high standards:
* More than 70 percent of all teachers agreed with the statement that "schools should adjust to the needs, interests, and learning styles of individual students, rather than expecting students to meet the norms of the school," compared with 56 percent of TTT teachers.
* More than 57 percent of TTT teachers said that socioeconomic background does not prevent students from achieving at the highest levels, while only 47 percent of existing teachers supported that view.
Eden Reyes, a former US Air Force master sergeant, began teaching fifth-grade mathematics at the Landrum Elementary School, in San Benito, Texas, in 1995. All his students passed the state assessment in mathematics this year. He credits his military experience with helping him get a handle on discipline problems in a tough and diverse school district.
"It's important to let a child understand what is expected of them, and the consequences. In the military, discipline must be maintained to complete a mission. Without effective classroom management, students will not be able to learn," he says.
But educators urging Congress to maintain this program say that the most important contribution of such teachers is the quality of their life experiences before they got into the classroom.
"We need more motivated and mature teachers with successful life experiences to be role models for our students," says Sam Swofford, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. California will need some 250,000 teachers over the next 10 years.
"We are finding," he adds, "that teachers who enter the profession later are more successful and stay longer."
FACTS ABOUT TROOPS TO TEACHERS
* Ninety percent of people coming into teaching through Troops to Teachers (TTT) are male; 74 percent of the overall teaching force is female.
* Nearly 29 percent of TTT teachers are minority; 10 percent of the general public school teaching force is minority.
* Twenty-nine percent of TTT teachers, compared with 13 percent of all teachers, report they are teaching mathematics.
* Twenty-five percent of TTT teachers are teaching in an inner-city school; 16 percent of all teachers work in inner-city schools.
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