Grand Rapids school board resists Teach for America in underperforming schools
GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- The Grand Rapids Board of Education had a rigorous debate Monday, Feb. 9, regarding a request from Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal to use 10 to 15 Teach for America workers to help fill positions in five underperforming Southeast Side schools next year.
Neal said the proposal was made as one of several strategies to help the district's recruiting challenges district-wide but added the organization, which places college graduates in some of the country's struggling schools for a two-year stint, is not a "silver bullet."
Still, some board members resisted the idea for some of the same reasons it did in 2012 -- including TFA grads not being highly qualified trained teachers but holding degrees in other areas; often departing after two years; and potentially hurting future teacher recruitment.
"I really want qualified teachers in our classrooms and these are students who chose not to go into the School of Education but other fields and now want to teach," said board vice president Maureen Slade, a former teacher and school administrator, during the Monday work session. "I find it offensive to the profession."
TFA workers were proposed for Dickinson and Campus elementary schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Alger Middle School and Ottawa Hills High School -- schools where the district has difficulty retaining and recruiting teachers for in core subject areas.
"This would just be one strategy, and we would not stop what we are trying to do with our universities to grow our own," said Neal, who said the district currently is using a lot of substitutes.
Casandra Madero, 12, on right, and Princess Leon, 12, take notes in their seventh grade math class at Alger Middle School on Monday, October 28, 2013. Alger is one of five schools recommended for Teach for America instructors.Emily Zoladz MLive.com
Sharron Pitts, assistant superintendent of Human Resource and Legal at GRPS, outlined the challenges for the board as well as a more aggressive and comprehensive approach to recruiting.
"We have a statewide crisis in getting teachers to fill positions in certain areas," said Pitts, who added the district's hard to fill positions are in math, science, Spanish and special education. "The problem is compounded because we are having difficulty even getting substitutes."
"We are constantly turning over teachers, especially in these hard to fill areas, because we are competing tooth and nail with our surrounding districts."
The district began the school year with 42 union teaching positions vacant; 31 were in hard to fill areas. There are currently 20 vacancies with 13 in those key areas.
Substitutes in the classroom for more than 90 days must hold a bachelor's degree, have an academic major or pass the state approved content test in the subject area taught and complete an approved elementary education program or Michigan Test for Teacher Certification. Those subbing for fewer than 90 days only need 90 college credit hours, less than an associate's degree.
Mary Bouwense, head of the teachers union, said GRPS using Teach For America teachers is a terrible idea and the district should be putting the most experienced teachers in front students, especially those in the proposed TFA classrooms.
"These people get five weeks of training, this is not their passion, and they usually leave after two years," she said. "I think the district needs to do a better job of presenting the district as a place that cares for, respects and values its employees and it needs to consider working conditions."
While a few board members shared some of Slade's concerns, a couple others saw the need to address the crisis in the short-term, while working toward a long-term solution.
"Of course, I'd rather grow our own, but if we can't get people through the hoops that they need to get through, we need to stop subbing in classrooms," said board member Dr. Monica Randles, referencing Pitts remarks about the new professional readiness exam and the difficulty new teachers statewide have had passing it.
"We need to find some stability around that and this is part of the answer. I feel this is worthwhile to take a look at."
John Helmholdt, district communications director, said TFA is looking to open up in the West Michigan market, not just in GRPS, but is looking to place up 25 TFA workers in traditional and charter schools.
He said the district would be required to pay the them as first-year teachers but the additional costs for training, certifications and coaches, up to $3 million, to be paid to TFA would be covered by anonymous philanthropists from the community. He said the district has gotten positive feedback about the work of TFA workers in Detroit.
In addition to concerns about the impact on current and future teachers and the motivations behind the TFA push, board president Tony Baker also raised questions about political fallout from such a move, including the district's consideration of a bond proposal in the fall.