Those Who Can, Teach

In California, a nonprofit is recruiting experienced engineers and scientists to teach in the beleaguered public schools.

National Journal
June 30, 2015, 5 a.m.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Ju­li­an Lewis took a buy­out from Lock­heed Mar­tin. He’d worked at the de­fense con­tract­or for 34 years in aerospace en­gin­eer­ing, mainly around Los Angeles, ul­ti­mately as the dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions for a fleet of top-secret air­craft that can fly for 24 straight hours. Lewis, now 54, as­sumed he’d spend his re­tire­ment in­dul­ging his love of golf and vo­lun­teer­ing to ment­or youths.

In­stead, he is train­ing to teach math and sci­ence at an in­ner-city high school, as ar­ranged by a Cali­for­nia not-for-profit ven­ture called the En­Corps STEM Teach­ers Pro­gram. “I real­ized that their val­ues and vis­ion were right in line with mine,” Lewis ex­plains.

En­Corps was foun­ded in 2007 by phil­an­throp­ist Sherry Lans­ing, a former CEO of Para­mount Pic­tures. The or­gan­iz­a­tion’s mis­sion is to re­cruit ex­per­i­enced private-sec­tor work­ers in sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math, and to train them to teach in pub­lic schools. Its par­ti­cipants, on av­er­age, boast 17 years of work ex­per­i­ence in one of those fields (25 per­cent come from aerospace or en­gin­eer­ing, and an­oth­er 24 per­cent have high-tech back­grounds). At first, the pro­gram was geared to­ward re­train­ing work­ers age 50 and older, but En­Corps has re­cently opened up its ranks to young­er work­ers and to vet­er­ans. Not quite half of the par­ti­cipants are 50 years or older.

The pro­gram works like this: A STEM work­er in­ter­ested in a teach­ing ca­reer goes through a rig­or­ous ap­plic­a­tion and in­ter­view pro­cess. This in­volves sev­er­al writ­ten es­say ques­tions, a com­mit­ment to work in a school where teach­ers are needed, and four hours of in­ter­views, in which the ap­plic­ant must present a sample school les­son. En­Corps ac­cepts few­er than 10 per­cent of ap­plic­ants.

The idea of re­cruit­ing non­tra­di­tion­al teach­ers for work in pub­lic schools dates back to World War II, ac­cord­ing to An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. Over the years, gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ives and privately run pro­grams such as Teach for Amer­ica have tried to lure well-edu­cated young people or older, ex­per­i­enced private-sec­tor work­ers in­to teach­ing. “That gives young people a con­nec­tion to the adult world that really mo­tiv­ates them,” Carne­vale says.

En­Corps’s dis­tinc­tion is to fo­cus on filling the need for teach­ers in math, sci­ence, and high-tech. Once people join En­Corps, they go through a three-day pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment in­sti­tute run by the non­profit, then en­roll (at their own ex­pense) in a teach­er cer­ti­fic­a­tion pro­gram at a loc­al com­munity col­lege or uni­versity. Earn­ing a teach­ing cre­den­tial can take any­where from 16 weeks to 18 months, says Kath­er­ine Wil­cox, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of En­Corps. Only then does the par­ti­cipant, with the non­profit’s help, look for a job some­where in Cali­for­nia, of­ten at a high school that fo­cuses on tech­nic­al ca­reers that don’t ne­ces­sar­ily re­quire a col­lege de­gree.

One such school is the STEM Academy of Hol­ly­wood. The 550 stu­dents, mostly Latino, in this Los Angeles school all qual­i­fy for a free or re­duced-price lunch. It’s where Lewis trained as a teach­er and where he hopes to work once he re­ceives his teach­ing cre­den­tial from the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Los Angeles).

The high school’s prin­cip­al, Paul Hirsch, says he ap­pre­ci­ates the En­Corps pro­gram be­cause it helps stu­dents con­nect what they learn in the classroom to their fu­ture ca­reers. “There’s a prom­ise there of build­ing ca­reer skills for these kids,” he says. “Some of the dis­il­lu­sion­ment in an in­ner-city school goes away.”

Lewis un­der­stands all too well the per­ils of grow­ing up poor in a tough neigh­bor­hood. He came of age in the 1970s in the crime-rid­den South Bronx, and as a teen­ager, he was “go­ing nowhere,” he re­counts. A pub­lic school teach­er re­cog­nized that Lewis had a pas­sion for avi­ation and re­com­men­ded that he at­tend a tech­nic­al avi­ation high school in Queens. The move changed the tra­ject­ory of his aca­dem­ic and pro­fes­sion­al life.

There, Lewis learned a trade and set him­self on a ca­reer path. He gradu­ated from high school in 1976 and was hired by an air­line in Miami, earn­ing $20 an hour—not a bad wage, even today, for someone without a col­lege de­gree. His tech­nic­al train­ing and his know-how in math and sci­ence soon led him to Lock­heed Mar­tin. Along the way, he earned a col­lege de­gree and climbed the cor­por­ate lad­der, do­ing well enough that he could af­ford to re­tire in his mid-50s.

This per­son­al ex­per­i­ence, in part, drew him to En­Corps’s mis­sion. “It mirrored the op­por­tun­ity that I got when I was a kid grow­ing up,” he says. Lewis feels strongly that a STEM edu­ca­tion can help dis­ad­vant­aged youths, even if they don’t end up in col­lege. “Any­one com­ing out of high school with that skill set,” he says, “can make a de­cent in­come that you can raise a fam­ily on. You will def­in­itely po­s­i­tion your­self to be­come middle class right there.”

Right now, Lewis is still earn­ing his teach­ing cre­den­tial. He also worked un­paid for about 40 hours at the Hol­ly­wood school, as­sist­ing an ex­per­i­enced teach­er in a civil-en­gin­eer­ing class. Each month, he talks with a ment­or­ing teach­er, ar­ranged by En­Corps, and also meets quarterly with par­ti­cipants who en­rolled in En­Corps at the same time he did.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion’s goal is not only to lure ex­per­i­enced work­ers from in­dustry in­to pub­lic schools but also to ease Cali­for­nia’s grow­ing short­age of teach­ers. The state, by En­Corps’s es­tim­ate, will need an ad­di­tion­al 33,000 math and sci­ence teach­ers by 2025. “Not enough STEM ma­jors go in­to teach­ing,” Wil­cox la­ments. “The whole cul­ture of teach­ing gets a bad rap.”

Since 2007, En­Corps has trained about 85 people who have be­come full-time teach­ers—not bad for a small non­profit that op­er­ates on an an­nu­al budget of less than $1 mil­lion, with just three staff mem­bers who work from home. An­oth­er 60 people are go­ing through the cre­den­tial­ing pro­cess, and 72 more have signed up to start next fall. The train­ing typ­ic­ally takes about two years from start to fin­ish.

The pro­gram is per­fect, Wil­cox says, for re­tir­ees such as Lewis who have already made enough money not to mind the low salar­ies for a start­ing teach­er in Cali­for­nia, typ­ic­ally $48,000 to $55,000 a year. Once he’s fin­ished at UCLA, Lewis hopes to teach three days a week—to leave time for golf—at the Hol­ly­wood school, where he and the prin­cip­al have dis­cussed start­ing a pro­gram in aero­naut­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing.

As for the cut in pay he’ll take, Lewis just laughs. “I won’t be mak­ing any­thing com­par­able,” he says, “but it’s not something I’ve really asked about. “¦ This is ba­sic­ally a pas­sion.”

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