Teaching Profession

Teach For America Operation To Close in Detroit

By Bess Keller — April 21, 2004 4 min read

Teach For America is pulling out of Detroit.

The Peace Corps-like program that puts recent college graduates in some of the nation’s neediest schools says it hasn’t been able to get a commitment from the district to hire a new crop of its members. Pointing to deep financial woes and the virtual certainty of teacher layoffs in the coming school year, the district acknowledges it hasn’t been able to make such a commitment.

The shutdown at the end of this school year marks the first time in a decade that Teach For America has left a district, said founder and president Wendy Kopp.

“No one is saying it’s a bad program,” said Mario L. Morrow, the director of community communications for the 150,000-student Detroit district. “But we have to try to solve all the problems holistically, and not on an individual basis where it appears we’re playing favorites.”

The district has said it has to cut 900 of 3,200 teaching positions by next school year to help fill a two-year budget gap of more than $170 million.

Teachers without certification and little experience, including TFA members, who are paid by the district, will be the first to go and the last to be rehired if there are layoffs. In part, that’s because state law requires certified teachers if possible, and in part, because the teachers’ contract dictates that senior teachers whose positions are eliminated get first crack at the remaining jobs for which they have the paper qualifications.

“The real stumbling block came because the district was not in a position to make this commitment,” said Ms. Kopp. “But I would say the ultimate issue is how districts across the country with financial cutbacks, and in some cases enrollment declines, will weather these serious challenges and ... not cut off access to new talent [that] goes far beyond Teach For America.”

The president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers sees the situation differently. She said the union questioned the district’s decision to invite TFA into Detroit from the beginning.

“It was our understanding that in rural areas, Teach For America provides a workforce,” said Jenna Garrison. “But here in Detroit, we have a workforce, and we’re not short of noncertified teachers. ... What it did is it took jobs away from people in the area.”

Up Against the Rules

Teach for America has 34 teachers in Detroit classrooms, all for a second year. The program did not add new members this past fall because of uncertainties about its viability in the city. The New York City-based organization requires the districts it works with, now 21 nationally, to hire its teachers in a range of subjects and grades. The program also wants the teachers to be able to tap into a streamlined route to certification.

Both rules made problems for the district, which might have been able to predict job openings in shortage areas such as special education but had a harder time promising, say, high school positions in English and social studies. TFA teachers also didn’t have access to an existing accelerated district program for uncredentialed teachers, a problem that the district ultimately said it could fix.

Ms. Kopp argued that her group can’t give Detroit teachers just in shortage areas because that would require disproportionately depriving other districts of the teachers they, too, need most.

One immediate consequence of having to undergo a longer certification program is that few, if any, Teach For America members will have their credentials by the next school year, which makes them more vulnerable to firing.

A majority of members want to continue in the Detroit schools when their two-year commitments are up, said Siobhan Doyle, TFA ’s Detroit program director. That aside, she said, “we feel Detroit is a place that can benefit from a program like ours.”

The Detroit group includes three natives of the city and others from the state. About a quarter are African-American, like more than 90 percent of the district’s enrollment. In college, they earned a grade point average of 3.5 on a 4-point scale, Ms. Doyle said.

Moving On, Reluctantly

Teach For America, which seeks to put the idealism and energy of well-educated young people at the service of hard-to-staff public schools, has grown more popular. Last year, the organization admitted about one out of 10 applicants.

“I think people are very disappointed,” said Aubrey L. Jones, a TFA recruit who teaches 4th grade at Westside Multicultural Academy in Detroit. “You dedicate two years of your life to ... the community and to some 30 to 40 children, teaching them social skills, academic skills, trying to empower them to work in their own communities and to be successful, and after forming that connection, it’s really disheartening that your work is no longer wanted.”

Ms. Jones, who graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., deferred law school admission to join the program. She was considering whether she wanted to stretch the deferment when news of the potential layoffs came.

“There seems,” she said, “no choice but to move on.”

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