Van Cleef Supports Memphis Public Schools
A national study found that Memphis has the highest percentage of “disconnected youth” – people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school – of any large U.S. city. While it’s possible to estimate what that costs taxpayers in lost productivity and social services, assessing the cost to an individual young person is much harder.
“We can’t let our children lose hope,” says Victoria Van Cleef. “We’ve got to make sure what we’re teaching really gives them access to college or a career from the get-go.”
Van Cleef is a vice president at TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project). She acknowledges that a lack of college readiness isn’t a problem unique to Memphis; rather, it’s a nationwide injustice that TNTP has targeted since its launch in 1997.
Van Cleef has gleaned her expertise from a 25-year career in education reform that has spanned large urban school districts, higher education and independent consulting firms. She’s been at TNTP since 2003, where she has focused on addressing root causes of substandard educational outcomes.
“We look at who’s teaching our kids, what they’re teaching, and whether they have the right support structures,” said Van Cleef. “We home in on that, try to help our partners align everything that is needed – and then get out of the way.”
Aligning support around Memphis’ teachers and schools is a complex problem that requires a multi-pronged approach. That means, first, recruiting and training top-tier teachers, with an emphasis on candidates who fit a given school’s or neighborhood’s culture.
“We’ve got to have teachers from a wider variety of backgrounds,” says Van Cleef. “Teachers who look like the kids they’re teaching, who understand their backgrounds. Teachers who will know how to meet our kids where they are.”
The work isn’t easy. Chief among her challenges, Van Cleef cites a long history of piling new expectations onto already overburdened teachers. She says one way to make their task achievable is to ensure that they are equipped with engaging, effective material – another priority.
“We constantly ask our teachers to do more with less,” notes Van Cleef. “We don’t pare down to what’s important; we rarely if ever take anything off their plates.”
“Many of our students start out years behind grade level in reading or math, but they don’t have years to catch up” she continues. “Figuring out how to fit as much learning as possible into the 180 days of our school year is crucial.”
Van Cleef’s optimism is spurred by the changes she has seen in Shelby County Schools since moving to Memphis in 2002. In that time, SCS has doubled the proportion of teachers who can make more than a year’s growth with students and seen steady academic gains every year.
Though solving the problem of educational inequality is likely to take generations, these milestones give her hope. She harks back to a saying from one of her mentors:
“The health of a community can be judged by the way it treats its children,” says Van Cleef. “For me, changing the way we wrap support around our kids will ultimately be the driving force in creating lasting opportunities for each and every one of them.”
Victoria Van Cleef is a graduate of New Memphis’ Leadership Development Intensive. Learn more at newmemphis.org.