Virginia prepares to welcome Teach for America

Virginia lawmakers welcomed Teach for America to the state this year with a unanimous vote so that the selective teaching corps could obtain an alternative license and deploy its army of elite college graduates as rookie teachers to school districts in need.

But Northern Virginia schools are unlikely to hire any of its members anytime soon.

Officials from several of Washington’s suburban school systems said they are only beginning to explore the possibility of partnering with the organization, which recruits and trains new college graduates to fill hard-to-staff jobs in low-income neighborhoods. They’re in no hurry because the reputable, affluent districts are not struggling with teacher shortages.

In Fairfax County, where 25,000 applicants last year applied for about 2,000 teaching positions, the school board adopted a position as part of its legislative platform this year that it “would choose not to employ teachers holding only a Teach for America provisional license.”

“I’m sure you have really lovely, pleasant young people, but with no experience. . . . That’s not our philosophy here in Fairfax County,” said school board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville). “We really want teachers who have had enough professional development and real experience so we know we are getting a seasoned, quality teacher in the classroom, particularly in our neediest schools.”

The 22-year-old organization recruits graduates of elite universities who do not hold education degrees and puts them into classrooms following a five-week training course. The new teachers make a two-year commitment and receive ongoing support and training. It’s a controversial approach that has fueled debate about how much — and what kind of — training teachers need before they can work effectively with students.

While some studies have shown that the novice teachers perform as well or better than traditionally certified ones, many school leaders say they prefer to hire candidates with more hours spent student-teaching and more education course work. Alexandria schools superintendent Morton Sherman said he is enthusiastic about Teach for America, but he would likely reach out only “after we exhaust our terrific pool of applicants.”

Around the country, though, an increasing number of school districts are turning to Teach for America to help improve academic prospects for their neediest and lowest-performing students. Virginia’s new teaching license will make it the 37th state to partner with Teach for America, plus the District.

In the District and Prince George’s County, 350 Teach for America corps members are working with an estimated 18,000 students. Alumni of the organization also serve as principals and district leaders, including D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee.

Teach for America aims to reduce a pervasive talent gap between rich and poor schools. Last year, its recruiters fielded 48,000 applicants for 5,800 new positions, nearly 40 percent of whom were racial or ethnic minorities. The applicant pool included 9 percent of all Ivy League seniors.

Many of the teachers work in the hard-to-staff fields of special education, mathematics, or English as a second language.

The organization typically works in inner cities and rural counties, but a spokeswoman said it would not preclude the idea of working in a reputable suburban district that wants help to reduce the achievement gap in poor neighborhood schools.

The Teach for America Act, a key part of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s education reform agenda, provides a two-year provisional license for the young recruits so they can attain the course work in pedagogy and pass the tests that they need to get a five-year renewable license while they are working in the classroom.

According to the new law, school districts could hire teachers as early as July 1, but Teach for America said it will probably take more than a year to develop partnerships. It could potentially move into Northern Virginia sooner by expanding its regional office in the District.

But it is more likely to make initial inroads into southwestern Virginia, where talented teachers are more scarce, by expanding the region served by the the organization’s Appalachian office, based in Hazard, Ky. Conversations are underway for next school year, Teach for America officials said, but they have not made any firm agreements.

It will take longer to reach interested districts in central or eastern Virginia because the organization will need to set up a new regional office to recruit and support of 30 to 50 teachers, at a cost of $3 million to $4 million.

Most of the money would be raised locally from foundations, businesses and individuals. The organization also typically asks partnering school districts to pay $3,000 to $5,000 per teacher in addition to the teacher salaries.

Eventually, Virginia politicians and reform advocates say they hope to reverse an outflow of talented teachers. About 300 corps members who are from Virginia or who graduated from a Virginia college are working elsewhere.

“If the demand is there, we could keep a lot of homegrown talent in Virginia,” said Shannon Blankenship, a national vice president of Teach for America.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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