Von Johnson, MSW – Managing Director of Statewide External affairs at Teach for America Florida, shares the strides that the organization is taking to further the education and advancement of our region’s communities with the highest need. 

This edition of Profiles in Small Business features Von Johnson, MSW, head of external affairs for Teach For America. Find out what makes Teach For America such an impactful organization and the strides they are taking to further the education and advancement of our region’s communities with the highest need. 

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If you were introducing your business to someone new, how would you describe it? 

Teach For America (TFA) recruits, develops and supports exceptional and diverse leaders so they can transform education and expand opportunities for children, beginning in the classroom. Upon joining our network, we ask these leaders to make a lifelong commitment that begins with at least two years of teaching in a high-need school. During this time, we provide training and professional development programs that foster critical skills and thinking. In doing so, we develop leaders who go beyond traditional expectations of these roles to advance the academic and personal growth of their students. With regional hubs in Jacksonville, Central Florida and Miami-Dade, hundreds of our members and alumni are working to improve the quality of teaching and education in high-need communities across the state. We are proud that Teach For America has been utilizing this model and achieving statewide improvement metrics since launching our work in Florida in 2003.

What brought your business to the Orlando region? What kept you here? 

Teach For America (TFA) has supported leaders who work to expand educational opportunities for children growing up in poverty in Florida for over 18 years. Each year we recruit a diverse group of our nation’s most promising talent to the state of Florida. In response to a community call, TFA Central Florida launched in 2015, since then, we have recruited, trained and supported over 150 teachers in Orlando. This year, the TFA Central Florida region will make the strategic shift to become the premier region for alumni development and placement. With this shift, we will see an increased number of alumni with proven track records of success and achievement in key roles. Those alums are having sustained impact by fostering a network that is continuously spreading knowledge in ways that accelerate student learning, increasing optimism in the solvability of the problem among the network and sustaining a cycle that helps compel the next generation into the work.  

What makes the Orlando region unique for small businesses? 

The Orlando region has made diversity, equity and inclusion a top priority. Due to the population we serve, we resonated with this shared priority and have been able to seamlessly forge strategic partnerships in the community, widening the net of our impact on our students and families.  

What makes the Orlando region the right place for your business? How does being in Orlando contribute to your business success? 

Since Teach For America Central Florida launched in 2015, we have proudly partnered with more than 14 schools and multiple community organizations, foundations and businesses to expand opportunities for students and families. In some of Orlando’s highest-need schools, our leaders are advancing academic gains and aiding the life development of their students. In partnership with Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), TFA Central Florida has recruited education leaders to expand opportunities for over 5,000 Orange County students. We have rallied and responded to the community’s need for an intense focus on the schools and neighborhoods that historically struggle to recruit and retain high quality teachers. Since coming to Orlando, OCPS has seen steady improvements, including a district graduation rate increase of more than 20 percentage points in the last decade.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your business? 

Teach For America is purposeful in our recruitment of leaders who share similar identities and life experiences as the communities we serve. This collective force works with unwavering commitment to expand opportunity for students and families. Fifty one percent of our teachers identify as a person of color; 42 percent of our educators graduated from a Florida university or college; and 51 percent of our educators come from a low-income background. The single most common profession amongst alumni is teaching and 75 percent remain teaching past their two-year corps service. Overall, 53 percent of alumni in Florida work in education.  

Why is it important for your business to be a member of the Orlando Regional Chamber? 

We cannot do this work alone and must embrace a partnership approach in addressing the challenges within our community. To have strong, sustainable change, collectiveness is critical. Teach For America’s work and 10-year goal is deeply aligned to the Orlando Regional Chamber’s mission to create sustainable community impact through robust, future focused programming that accelerates growth. Our shared commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion makes for an ideal partnership.

What are you most excited for about regarding the future of your business? 

We are excited to share that we are currently on track to meet our ambitious 10-year goal, with twice as many children in communities where Teach For America works expected to reach key educational milestones by 2030, indicating they are on the path to economic mobility. 

This year, Teach For America launched a new, statewide alumni network that is innovating our alumni support system for the 1,500+ TFA alumni who call Florida home. TFA Jacksonville and Central Florida will participate in this growing network, collectively partnering with state and local stakeholders to accelerate progress toward increased student outcomes. If Florida is to improve opportunities for high need students growing up in poverty, we need many more courageous and talented individuals and the highest standard of teacher leadership in both traditional district and charter school systems. With the creation of the Alumni Educator Fellowship, Teach For America Florida will recruit alumni teachers who commit to coming to Florida to work in our state’s highest-need schools, while participating in a high-quality professional development program that includes ongoing coaching and mentorship.

If you had to describe to an out-of-town friend what it’s like to live, work, learn and play in Orlando, what would you say? 

The Sunshine State’s diversity emanates through our culture, architecture, cuisine and attitude. Orlando is known for its theme parks. But, for those of us who call Orlando home, we know that this city is much more than just the top tourist destination in the country. As one of the fastest-growing cities in America, there is so much opportunity. For reasons ranging from the ever-expanding job market to the constant increase in home values, people who come to Orlando stay in Orlando.