AZ Leadership: Katie Tennessen Hooten

Katie Tennessen Hooten believes that any child can achieve excellence both inside and outside the classroom, given the proper resources.

Hooten, executive director of Teach For America–Phoenix, said she originally planned to be a journalist. But a speech delivered by Karn Engelsgjerd, now vice president of the educational nonprofit Achievement Network, at a Teach For America recruitment event inspired Hooten to follow a different path.

“She was speaking about her experience as a teacher in New York City, and she was so passionate and convicted and just unwavering about what her kids could achieve that I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a part of a group of people who believe this fiercely in children and who know that they have the potential to change our country and our world,’” Hooten said. “That moment was one that actually changed my life forever.”

Hooten moved to Phoenix in 2002 — assigned by Teach For America — to teach kindergarten in the Osborn School District, and she said that experience has had a lasting impact on her.

“I just got a text from one of my kindergarteners who graduated from ASU in this winter semester, and she said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that you put me on the right path,’ which is crazy because I taught five-year-olds!” Hooten said.

TFA–Phoenix is celebrating 25 years in the Valley this year, and it shows.

“Over the past 25 years, Teach For America has built a leadership pipeline for educational equity in the Valley that is now 1,000-strong and growing, and this local force for change is a group of leaders that is working directly inside and outside of the classroom to ensure that, one day, all kids in Arizona can achieve an excellent education,” Hooten said.

TFA–Phoenix has partnered with Arizona State University to allow its teachers to work and get their master’s degree at the same time, and to do so at an affordable rate. Last summer, the organization partnered with ASU and two schools to create a summer institute that offers free summer classes to kids in the Maryvale School District.

Partnerships are a key part of TFA’s success in the Valley and something Hooten plans to build on for the future, she said.

“Partnering with Achieve60AZ, partnering with College Success Arizona to realize our post-secondary attainment goals for our state, I think that’s going to be critical for our future both as a state, but for our kids, because our kids are our state’s future,” Hooten said.

TFA places new teachers in Title 1 schools, meaning many of its students come from low-income backgrounds, and many are students of color.

“When I think about our teaching workforce, the type of diversity that our kids deserve and need in the classroom is not there,” Hooten said.

About 22 percent of Arizona teachers identify as people of color, but a top priority at TFA is matching students with teachers from similar backgrounds; the numbers point to success.

“I’m proud to say that 67 percent of our teachers identify as either teachers of color or are from a low-income background,” Hooten said. “So the majority of our teachers share an identity — that background — with our kids, which we know is critical and has a profound additional impact on their students’ success in learning.”

Hooten’s next big challenge at TFA–Phoenix is preparing the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.

“The biggest thing on my mind right now is the extent to which our schools are preparing kids to be successful and thriving in the 21st century workforce,” Hooten said. “We don’t even know what the majority of jobs are going to be 30 years from now, so how can we ensure that our education is preparing our kids to be successful?”

One thing is certain for Hooten: what’s happening in some classrooms right now is not going to set children up for success. But Arizona’s educational community is on it, she said.

“I think it’s a combination of both reforming and reimagining,” Hooten said. “I’m not alone in thinking that, that’s not a Teach For America thought, and what I love is… our educational community is rallied around that and committed to ensuring that our kids are prepared.”

Graham Bosch

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