Olmsted Academy North, an all-boys middle school in Louisville, is eerily empty on a recent July morning.
Desk chairs are stacked in hallways as a lone janitor cleans nearly bare classrooms. Locker doors hang ajar, waiting for their new owners to start classes next month.
It is clear school is out for the summer — until a teacher’s voice echoes out of a second-floor classroom, bouncing down the hall until it meets a different voice. And again, with a voice from a corner of the school’s library.
Inside room 203, Kelsey Sutton is leading a class of about 10 through a guided worksheet on the Pythagorean theorem. After finishing instructions from a slideshow, she floats throughout the room, explaining high school geometry topics and kindly yet firmly redirecting students back to their work.
Sutton’s 50-minute lesson is a mock trial — her “students” are retired teachers and members of her Teach Kentucky cohort. The trigonometry lesson was Sutton’s final step of the program’s summer training institute, where recent college graduates learn how to be teachers.
As Jefferson County Public Schools looks at ways to recruit and retain teachers — especially those of color — Teach Kentucky has been working to mitigate a teacher shortage in the district by attracting talent into the city and profession.
Teach Kentucky, a local nonprofit entering its 17th year, is not unlike the national Teach for America program. This year’s cohort has 48 members hailing from 23 states and selected from 231 completed applications, officials said. Many did not major in education. Instead, they attend a summer training program to learn how to teach, then receive their teaching certifications as they teach.
They’re required to teach for two years, often in underserved classrooms. Around 20% of Teach Kentucky’s cohort identifies as a racial minority, officials said.
TFA is frequently criticized for putting underprepared teachers in high-need schools because they only train teachers in front of students for five weeks. Teach Kentucky doubles down — most of their mock teaching is not in front of students. One Olmsted teacher monitoring Sutton’s institute classroom, Andrew Beaver, said participants work with students at a camp, but Jefferson County doesn’t really lend itself to a full-time student teaching experience.
So they practice with mock lessons, which start at around 20 minutes and scaffold to the 50-minute plans presented on the final days of the institute. Much is similar to a JCPS classroom: Teachers use up-to-date technology and build in “mindful minutes” of meditation to calm students. There are “bellringer” exercises, central lessons and exit slips.
Sans real kids, each “student” receives a behavior slip on how they should act to mimic a real classroom. The slips range from no behavior issues to technology obsessed to short attention spans.
And they commit to it — one “student,” after routinely talking out of turn, stood up and left the room for several minutes before returning with a full roll of toilet paper for the classroom tissue supply. (After multiple lessons with a negative behavior slip, the teacher-student said she really is not like this in real life.)
After a lesson on dividing fractions ends, the teacher, Kaitlin Weiss-Silvestri, lets her students do millennial dance moves to a fraction-themed rap song. Watching from the back of the room, Beaver, a math teacher at Olmsted North, laughs and says, “Yeah, this is very realistic.”
Almost nothing can fully prepare a novice teacher for their first year in a classroom, but retired teacher mentors hope to help. Susan Waterman, who taught for nearly three decades in Anchorage, is one of them. Standing in the hallway between lessons, she says the program sets teachers up for “great success” in the classroom.
Silently, she watches practice lessons, writing feedback — not to judge, but to help guide, she said. In the coming weeks and months, she’ll meet with mentees over dinner, help set up classrooms and observe real lessons.
Rowan Claypool, the founder of Teach Kentucky, described Waterman’s role as a “shock absorber.” Mentors can help new teachers along the way and provide support to keep them in classrooms.
Over half of all program participants stay and teach in Kentucky after their two-year requirement, according to program data. Another quarter continue teaching elsewhere.
But the program can help fill part of a shortage of teachers in the Louisville area. JCPS typically has dozens of classrooms during the school year without a full-time teacher, district officials have said in state board meetings. (A count of how many teacher vacancies the district had at the end of the year was not readily available.)
Nearly two-thirds will teach STEM courses — traditionally hard-to-fill but high demand math and science classes. Around one-third are certified in more than one subject area.
The number of completed applications dropped by 42% between last year and now — something indicative of what is causing a teacher shortage in the first place, Claypool said. The talent market is “deteriorating,” he said. Fewer people are choosing to enroll in education programs as undergraduates; interest is down in becoming an educator.
Alternative pathways — like Teach Kentucky — are growing in discussions as potential remedies. Earlier this week, JCPS said it is toying with the idea of a teacher residency program.
In one month, Olmsted North’s halls won’t be so quiet as students return to school in JCPS. At least two-thirds of Teach Kentucky’s cohort this year will be in JCPS schools. One of them will be Sutton, who will teach in Waggener High School.
This post has been updated with new retention numbers.