$1 million in new funding will help alternative teacher preparation program expand
June 26, 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When Kiesha Johnnies said goodbye to her kindergarten students on the last day of school this month, it marked the end of her two-year Teach for America commitment at a north side charter school.
But it won’t be Johnnies’ last day in the classroom — the 24-year-old plans to pursue a career in education and hopes to one day work as a leader in Milwaukee schools.
Now, a state budget provision just approved by the Legislature could help fast track Johnnies to that goal, and another could bring a new stream of state funding to the organization — both moves that have drawn the ire of some local education leaders.
The high-flying but controversial alternative teacher preparation program has also renewed and expanded its contract with Milwaukee Public Schools, despite some hesitation by School Board members who raised concerns about the commitment and effectiveness of the two-year teachers.
Teach For America just completed its fourth school year in Milwaukee. It sent 50 new teachers to schools across the city this year, a number that will grow to 70 next year.
In part, that expansion will be aided by a budget provision giving the organization $1 million of state funding over the next two years. That funding will mark the first state investment in the program since it began operating in Milwaukee.
Maurice Thomas, executive director of TFA-Milwaukee, said the funds will increase TFA’s ability to recruit, select and train new teachers to be placed in public, charter and voucher schools across the city. Thomas also said the organization plans to match every dollar of state investment with two dollars from the private sector.
Critics of the program, and the program’s receiving money, point out that TFA puts recent college graduates in front of some of the city’s toughest classrooms after only a five-week summer training course. They also point out that many leave teaching after their two-year commitment.
Nationally, 60% of TFA graduates continue on in education in some form, either through policy or management or teaching. In Milwaukee, that number is slightly higher, with 63% of the local TFA teachers through 2012 staying involved in education, either in Wisconsin or other states.
Other studies have shown that, on a national level, only a small portion of TFA teachers remain teaching in their initial placement school. Only about 15% remain after five years.
Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association union President Bob Peterson said he disagrees with the budget provision that would send $1 million to TFA over the next two years.
“Wisconsin taxpayers should not have to subsidize a national organization with net assets of over $350 million that is essentially a job training program for privileged college students mostly from out of state,” he said.
School boards across the state could find better uses for $1 million, Peterson added.
MPS Chief Human Capital Resources Officer Karen Jackson said the district looks forward to a continued partnership with TFA, and that the organization provides valuable services to local schools.
“The group serves a threefold function for MPS: It provides certified teachers in schools that are hard to staff; it provides specialists in hard-to-fill areas such as special education, bilingual, math and science; and it adds to the diversity of our workforce,” she said.
Becoming a principal
Another budget provision allows TFA teachers, who teach under emergency credentials while working toward their teaching licenses, to count their two years with the organization toward the three-year teaching requirement necessary to qualify for an administrator’s license.
An administrator’s license is required for any individual serving as a principal in Wisconsin.
Without the change, TFA teachers needed to teach for five years — two with TFA that don’t count, and then three that do — before meeting the requirements to become a certified principal.
Thomas said he is pleased with the proposal, adding that he believes it could motivate some additional Milwaukee corps members to stay involved in education when they otherwise may not have.
Peterson said the proposal does not serve students well and is insulting to current administrators.
TFA recently finalized a new contract with Milwaukee Public Schools that would allow up to 50 TFA teachers to work within the district. Last year, 10 TFA teachers worked in MPS. This year, TFA is expecting to place between 30 and 40 teachers in the district depending on the final hiring needs, according to TFA spokeswoman Jackie Primeau.
During the May 30 Milwaukee School Board debate on the contract, concerns about the organization were raised by board member Tatiana Joseph, who serves the city’s 6th District.
“To me (a two year teaching agreement) doesn’t speak to commitment, to me that speaks to ‘I didn’t get into law school, I didn’t get into med school, I need to do something, kind of like Peace Corps, volunteer work, and then apply again,’” Joseph said.
MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton countered Joseph, saying TFA teachers provide valuable support within the district.
“These individuals go places where we can’t get teachers,” he said. “These folks fill holes that substitutes typically fill every day. We’ve had situations where youngsters have had three or four subs throughout the school year (with) none of the subs being certified in the subject area.”
The contract was approved for one year and also contains options for two additional one-year terms.
Johnnies, who taught at the Milwaukee Math and Science Academy and is pursuing a master’s degree in urban education at Cardinal Stritch University, said she would have pursued the leadership track, with or without the budget change, and had positive views of the organization and the people it introduces into education in Milwaukee.
“I think that Teach For America brings in individuals who already have something stored in them and want to do something about it within education,” she said.