Teach for America: One year later
A look at the national program’s first year in Tulsa — its teachers, its potential impact and how it fits in to Tulsa Public Schools’ growing budget concerns.
(page 3 of 4)
Tulsa was initially around No. 30 on the list of TFA expansion sites, but the investment of millions of dollars from local organizations and federal funds for Tulsa Public Schools, as well as a change in the law expediting teacher certification for corps members, helped the city move up the ranks.
The partnership between Teach for America and Tulsa began with Lynn Schusterman, co-founder of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Schusterman learned about the program several years ago and wanted to meet Kopp. Three years ago, the two met in New York City to discuss TFA.
“We started talking about bringing Teach for America to Tulsa, to Oklahoma,” Schusterman says. “At the time, we were, like, 30th on the list, and I started talking to her about how much we needed it, how important it was, that we had a governor that believed in education, a mayor who was committed to education. ... That’s how it started. I had heard about the program. I contacted Wendy and set up the meeting to meet her, to really hear about the program itself.”
One concern Kopp had about bringing the program to Tulsa, Schusterman says, was whether the city would be attractive to young adults. The next hurdle was the financial component, Schusterman says.
In February 2009, TFA challenged the Tulsa community to raise the money needed to bring the program to the city. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation pledged $2 million in financial support, in addition to $1 million pledged by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and $300,000 by the Williams Foundation.
As part of its agreement with TFA, Tulsa Public Schools uses Title 1 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds, federal money given to low-income schools, to pay TFA for the additional professional development and training for corps members.
To help recruit corps members to Tulsa, the George Kaiser Foundation pledged bonuses of $2,500 to the inaugural class of teachers who complete the two-year commitment.
But for all the accolades, Teach for America has not been without controversy, locally as well as nationally. Critics of the program call it a way for school districts to replace experienced teachers with new employees to work at a beginner’s salary and leave after the two-year commitment is up. Some also question how prepared the teachers are for the classroom after just one summer of training.
Locally, the controversy surrounds TPS laying off nearly 300 teachers on temporary contracts because of budget reductions while bringing in more TFA teachers. Keith Ballard, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, says the situation is not ideal.
“I see it as being problematic, but I believe you always make your decisions in the best interests of the students, and I believe it’s in the best interest of the students that we honor our contractual obligation with Teach for America,” he says.
The school district was contractually obligated to bring in 50 teachers for the 2009-2010 school year, but because TPS was in need of teachers at that time, additional corps members from other regions came to Tulsa.
Of the 82 teachers placed at Tulsa Public Schools and Community Action Project sites, 72 are returning for the coming school year. Teach for America had initially planned to bring another 75 teachers to Tulsa for the 2010-2011 school year, but when the district’s budget was cut, Ballard reduced that number to 50.
“It’s been a burden to them that I’ve had to back down to 50. It grieves me terribly if in the end we have to lay off teachers while we’re taking in Teach for America. I understand that criticism. I truly do understand it,” Ballard says, adding that he would answer the criticism this way: “First of all, we have a contractual obligation.
“Secondly, as I’ve already said, they’re going into hard-to-fill areas, and I haven’t seen a big line of teachers wanting to go into (those areas).”
Despite the difficult situation, Ballard says he is pleased with the organization.
“I thought we had an excellent year with Teach for America,” he says. “I had very high expectations and they met them and, to some degree, even exceeded them.
“ … We have this very committed young group of teachers, highly trained, and I do believe they’ve made a big difference.”
He adds that he does not want to denigrate the performance of other teachers, as many of them are excellent, but TFA corps members are “highly trained for the urban city.”
Ultimately, Ballard says, “I believe my decision to bring back the 70 TFA-ers and the additional 50 is the correct decision.”