Reach the Children
Teach for America sends bright college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools. Not everyone likes the idea, but when you’re putting out a fire, you don’t ask where the water’s coming from.
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In 2008, the group increased its recruitment staff and arranged some 30,000 one-on-one meetings with students on about 450 college campuses. “We’re not looking for just anyone,” says regional TFA director Novak. “We want unique candidates with strong leadership qualities.”
Healthy fundraising has helped pay for the additional recruiting efforts. TFA’s annual budget grew from about $40 million in 2005 to more than $110 million this year. Private funding, from foundations, corporations and individuals, makes up about two-thirds of that total, with the rest coming from government grants and other sources.
As the program has grown in Connecticut, TFA’s recruitment budget here has increased, too, from $2.9 million in 2007-08 to a projected $4.8 million for 2009-10. Major donors in Connecticut include The Hartford Financial Services Group and Yale University, but individuals account for a growing piece of the pie, especially in light of expected corporate cutbacks due to economic uncertainty.
For all its recruiting efforts, however, not all TFA corps members come to the program in the same way.
Conor Reardon, 22, grew up in Branford. At Brown University, he played baseball and imagined one day playing in the majors. A car accident ended that dream. At that point, he says, “I thought I might write or go to law school. But basically, I had no idea what I wanted to do after college.”
A friend mentioned TFA. “I knew I needed a job so I wouldn’t have to live at home, and this appealed to me as something to do.”
In his first year, Reardon teaches world history to sixth-graders at Achievement First Bridgeport Academy, part of a growing galaxy of charter schools in the state. He is clearly in command of his class of energetic 11- and 12-year-olds. During a recent afternoon lesson, he had kids enthusiastically answering questions about the ancient dynasties of China.
How did he pick up the knack for teaching so quickly? “I’ve tried to be really receptive to feedback and solicit input from my more experienced co-workers,” says Reardon. “I taught for only four weeks before I got here so I don’t have nearly the experience of the others. I learned some useful things at TFA’s summer institute and incorporate them into my work here. But being at Achievement First has taught me many things, too.”
Currently, TFA operates in 25 states. Its arrangement in Connecticut, however, is unique. Here the program is considered an Alternate Route to Certification, meaning that corps members enter classrooms as fully certified teachers.
“It’s interesting that there’s one set of standards for TFA and a different set for those who go through years of teacher training and enter the profession as educators,” says Richard Schwab, dean of UConn’s NEAG School of Education. “There is a long-term danger here of downgrading the teaching profession to the point where we’re just looking for a bunch of folks who come in on a part-time basis to solve our most pressing problems.”
Although Schwab concedes that corps members are often “bright, talented and passionate,” he insists that while TFA may address a need, it does nothing about the underlying problem. “We have such a disparity in this state,” he says, “it’s an embarrassment. It’s a complex problem and we shouldn’t be looking to solve it with a Band-Aid.”
Clearly, counter TFA advocates, the need for a variety of approaches to the problem is more pressing than ever. Indeed, its successes, in a way, illustrate how weak and poorly funded many urban schools are. If institutions were able not only to pay teachers well but also to provide enough equipment, programs and security, they would not have to resort to hiring college graduates with only a summer’s worth of training.
But in the present economic environment it is unlikely most of these schools will find more resources anytime soon. Until they do, TFA is a viable approach to addressing the problems that exist. “Naturally, I’d like to find somebody local for the long term,” says Hector Sanchez, principal of Cesar Battalla in Bridgeport. “But I have no fear or trepidation taking on a corps member for only two years. It means I’ll be getting two years of quality teaching.”