The program works like this: A STEM worker interested in a teaching career goes through a rigorous application and interview process. This involves several written essay questions, a commitment to work in a school where teachers are needed, and four hours of interviews, in which the applicant must present a sample school lesson. EnCorps accepts fewer than 10 percent of applicants.
The idea of recruiting nontraditional teachers for work in public schools dates back to World War II, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Over the years, government initiatives and privately run programs such as Teach for America have tried to lure well-educated young people or older, experienced private-sector workers into teaching. "That gives young people a connection to the adult world that really motivates them," Carnevale says.
EnCorps's distinction is to focus on filling the need for teachers in math, science, and high-tech. Once people join EnCorps, they go through a three-day professional development institute run by the nonprofit, then enroll (at their own expense) in a teacher certification program at a local community college or university. Earning a teaching credential can take anywhere from 16 weeks to 18 months, says Katherine Wilcox, executive director of EnCorps. Only then does the participant, with the nonprofit's help, look for a job somewhere in California, often at a high school that focuses on technical careers that don't necessarily require a college degree.
One such school is the STEM Academy of Hollywood. The 550 students, mostly Latino, in this Los Angeles school all qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. It's where Lewis trained as a teacher and where he hopes to work once he receives his teaching credential from the University of California (Los Angeles).
The high school's principal, Paul Hirsch, says he appreciates the EnCorps program because it helps students connect what they learn in the classroom to their future careers. "There's a promise there of building career skills for these kids," he says. "Some of the disillusionment in an inner-city school goes away."
Lewis understands all too well the perils of growing up poor in a tough neighborhood. He came of age in the 1970s in the crime-ridden South Bronx, and as a teenager, he was "going nowhere," he recounts. A public school teacher recognized that Lewis had a passion for aviation and recommended that he attend a technical aviation high school in Queens. The move changed the trajectory of his academic and professional life.
There, Lewis learned a trade and set himself on a career path. He graduated from high school in 1976 and was hired by an airline in Miami, earning $20 an hour—not a bad wage, even today, for someone without a college degree. His technical training and his know-how in math and science soon led him to Lockheed Martin. Along the way, he earned a college degree and climbed the corporate ladder, doing well enough that he could afford to retire in his mid-50s.