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New District teacher, a Philly native, looks forward to helping ‘kids who look like me’

Jessica Kesler, a graduate of the city's public schools, is one of 581 new hires this year in the District.

Jessica Kesler in her classroom at Muñoz-Marin Elementary on the first day of school.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Jessica Kesler grew up in West Philadelphia and attended Overbrook Elementary, Beeber Middle School (since closed), and Parkway Center City High School. From there, she went on to St. Joseph’s University.

On Monday, she started in her new role in the Philadelphia School District: teaching 4th-grade science at Muñoz-Marin Elementary School in Kensington.

She is one of 581 new teachers hired this year in the District and is among the 146 African Americans – 25 percent – in her new cohort and the 430 women – 74 percent. The District is actively seeking to increase the number of African American teachers it employs, a figure that has been declining steadily.

In previous years, the District has needed to hire significantly more teachers than it did this year, as large numbers retired or left. Superintendent William Hite hopes that this smaller number signals more stability in the teacher corps.

Teacher turnover has long been a problem in Philadelphia, felt most acutely in a core group of hard-to-staff schools – generally in the poorest neighborhoods with the neediest students. Of the 3,460 teachers hired between 2013 and 2018, excluding those in the current cohort, more than a third – 34 percent – are no longer with the District, according to its data. Of the group recruited for 2017-18, (875 first-time teachers), 20 percent left in their first year.

In addition to recruitment, the District needs to focus on retaining teachers, Hite told the group at the end of a full week of induction activities earlier this month.

“We have to change from a recruitment to a retention conversation,” he told the new hires. “I want all of you to be here for us, for as long as you can. I want you to think about raising your children here in Philadelphia because of the quality of the education. We all need each other’s help to do that.”

Kesler, a science teacher, says she is determined to be among those who stay.

At the end of the induction week, itself part of the effort to make sure teachers have the support they need so they will stay, she was full of enthusiasm.

“This week was an awesome opportunity to grow and learn, prepare us … for our work over the next 10 months,” she said. “It’s awesome to feel the vibe from Philly. I was born and raised here.”

Jessica Kesler at the end of teacher induction week.

But after several weeks of preparation, including with her colleagues at Muñoz-Marin, she was ready to be in front of students.

On Monday, she escorted her well-behaved students into Room 303 in the spiffed-up school, telling them to find a desk with “your favorite number” and promising to have all their names memorized by the end of the week.

“I’m always nervous on the first day,” said Kesler, who taught previously at KIPP-Dubois Charter School. “I left my lunch home this morning.”

It’s not the students who make her nervous, she was quick to add: “I love being around kids.” She is thrilled to teach in the District where she grew up, to help and support “kids who look like me.”

She graduated high school in 2008 and St. Joe’s in 2012. Since then, she has earned a master’s in secondary education and is working on a second one in educational leadership.

She was recruited to work at Muñoz-Marin by the principal, Ariel Lajara. She calls him “great,” and “inspirational,” and he says about her: “I could see that she understands what students need.”

Under Lajara, Muñoz-Marin, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in America’s poorest big city, has made significant progress, Hite said.

Lajara assigned Kesler to 4th grade, hoping that she would instill a love of science in the children early in their academic careers. He sensed that she could transmit her own passion – his word – about the subject to her students.

From her own experience, Kesler is well-aware of the challenges inherent in teaching in a city like Philadelphia.

“I wanted to be a surgeon,” she said. But in biology class, it dawned on her that she wouldn’t be happy if she were around sick people all the time.

Instead, she realized that she preferred to be surrounded by the bright-eyed eagerness of children. Before taking the plunge into a teaching career, she tutored and taught Sunday school at her church.

Although she “had a great education, great teachers” throughout her Philadelphia public school career, she discovered at St. Joe’s that she had a lot of catching up to do, even though she had been a straight-A student.

Despite her teachers’ best efforts, she said, “the resources weren’t there, the time wasn’t there. My chemistry class, I can’t remember a single lab. We did one dissection in biology. We didn’t have the technology.”

Now she hopes it will be different.

“My goal,” she said, “is to teach every child what they need to know so they don’t have to go through that catch-up.”

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