Former soldiers taking experience to classroom

Associated Press • Apr 29, 2007 at 11:39 AM

MEMPHIS - In the Marines, Sgt. Kenneth Pinkney led his company into the hostile streets of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Now, in a school once marked by brawls and low test scores, he steers 600 Geeter Middle School students toward a brighter future.

"A mother stopped me in the hall the other day and said, ‘You run this school like a military school,' and I said, ‘Thank you,'" said Pinkney, 49. Often patrolling the halls of the Southwest Memphis school, donning a red cap with the word "Retired" stitched across it, Sarge, as his staff calls him, has been principal at Geeter for two years and has turned the school around.

It's a lot different from the way he pictured himself spending his post-military years.

"I thought I was going to be a security guard," he laughed.

Pinkney is one of about 80 inactive military in local public schools who have transferred their skills to education through Troops to Teachers.

The program, run jointly by the Department of Education and Department of Defense, helps former soldiers get teacher-certified and offers a $10,000 stipend for those who spend three years in a low-income school.

"A regular day in a soldier's life, he's got a platoon of 40 people. He has to get them up in formation every morning. It's not a whole lot different than going into a classroom where you've got 30 kids," said Mike Schroeder, state manager of Troops to Teachers for Tennessee.

Across the country, 10,000 troops have come through the program.

You'll find 60 of those in Memphis City Schools and about 17 in Shelby County Schools.

While the retention rate for teachers in Tennessee is problematically low at 45 to 50 percent, Troops to Teachers retains 80 percent of its educators, Schroeder says.

"The average teacher is younger with less experience," says the Nashville-based program recruiter, whereas his retired soldiers have degrees and a war chest of problem-solving skills.

For former soldiers like Pinkney, who joined as a teenager, retirement comes in the late 30s and early 40s. Hardly at an age to stop working, young retirees often ponder what to do next.

Schroeder has gotten calls from enlisted soldiers stationed across the world interested in teaching careers.

"I've had people call me and say, ‘I wanted to be a teacher before I went into the Army, and 20 years later I still want to be a teacher,'" he said.

Four years after discovering Troops to Teachers, Tim Gough, 46, is assistant principal at Arlington Middle School.

During his service as a chief hospital corpsman for the Navy and Marines, he patched up and cared for soldiers wounded in combat during the Persian Gulf War.

When the Covington resident finished his service he was offered several prestigious college teaching positions but decided to go where he felt more needed.

"It would have paid better, but the people I'd be reaching are adults, and I want to reach kids," said Gough.

Because those eligible for the $10,000 bonus must teach at a school district with 50 percent free and reduced lunch or with 10 percent poverty, most of the local recruits are steered toward Memphis City Schools.

However, legislation is under review that could open that bonus money up to more teachers nationwide for individual schools. Millington, for example, has 10 percent poverty in local schools, but is in the Shelby County School district, whose students as a whole fall above the poverty level. "Millington needs them just as badly as Memphis," said Schroeder, "The kids are just as poor and their families are as much in need." But while getting the bonus is nice, Schroeder says his troops aren't in it for the money. Most soldiers who've gone through the program made more in the military than as teachers. "Money is the reason in less than 5 percent of the people," he said. Instead, they've chosen to continue serving their country. This time, protecting America's greatest asset - its future. AP-CS-04-29-07 1454EDT

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