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Teach for America returns to Detroit, draws criticism from local teachers

BY CAITLIN HUSTON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 9, 2010

After a seven-year absence, Teach for America will return to the troubled public school system in Detroit at the start of the 2010-2011 academic year. Its return to the city coincides with a new partnership with the University.

TFA accepted 100 recent college graduates into its Detroit program to teach in low-income communities around the city. And though many are excited about TFA’s return and its partnership with the University, Detroit-area teachers say they are upset by the introduced competition for teaching positions.

Ify Offor, vice president of new site development for TFA, wrote in an e-mail interview to The Michigan Daily that the organization selected Detroit due to the city’s level of community involvement and support.

“We chose to return to Detroit due to a transforming education reform landscape and the remarkable commitment of community leaders, parents and other local advocates to improve academic outcomes for Detroit’s students,” Offor wrote.

The organization previously worked in the city from 2001 to 2003, but Offor wrote that TFA left because it could no longer guarantee placement in the area for all of its teachers.

Offor added that because TFA has noticed improvements in many sectors of the city, members of the organization are confident in their ability to re-introduce the program to the area.

“We’re encouraged by local progress and the innovation of bold leaders, who laid the groundwork for our return to Detroit,” she wrote.

Under the terms of the recently announced partnership with the University, TFA teachers will also enroll at the University to obtain their state teaching certificates.

“The University of Michigan was selected as our ‘university partner’ due to their innovative strategies to prepare teachers for urban schools and their commitment to helping our corps members achieve as highly effective classroom teachers," Offor wrote.

The University was the largest contributor of applicants nationwide to TFA in 2009, with 7 percent of the year’s graduates applying for membership in the organization.

Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education, said she feels the school’s innovation comes from its attention to the “specific training practices of teaching,” in which teachers are taught practical classroom skills.

Ball said though the School of Education has been involved with TFA in the past, she is excited about the positive outcomes of this particular partnership.

“We’re engaged in a common purpose, which is to improve the quality of teachers who are teaching our nation’s kids, so this was just a new opportunity to do it — a really exciting opportunity,” she said.

Ball said faculty in the School of Education have previously discussed a possible collaboration with TFA. Similarly, TFA has also been interested in working with the University and has sent administrative members to observe the School of Education’s summer laboratory for elementary school children.

“We are confident that our corps members will be enriched by their educational training at the University of Michigan and will apply the knowledge they gain to enhance their work to advance educational outcomes for underserved Detroit students,” Offor wrote.

Ball echoed Offor’s positive sentiments, saying she is also pleased with TFA’s decision to return to Detroit, as the school is deeply invested in the city.

“We’re really committed to the city of Detroit and Detroit’s young people, and the opportunity to be working on improving the quality of beginning teachers who would be working with Detroit youth is very exciting to us,” she said.

Because TFA members will be interviewing for regular teaching positions alongside district teachers, some are opposed to the organization’s return to the city.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers — a union that represents teachers and instructional support personnel in Detroit — said he will not allow TFA members to work in the city, as he feels they will take away jobs from local teachers.

“There’s no way in the world that Teach for America is coming into (Detroit Public Schools) when I’ve got 1,983 teachers who’ve received layoff notices,” Johnson said.

Faced with TFA’s move into the city, Johnson said the organization should try to work out an agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. If it does not, Johnson said he will go before court to file for injunctive release, which would prevent TFA from sending its teachers to the city.

TFA is also currently facing potential issues with its budget as Congress is currently deliberating next year's federal budget, which could impact the amount of funding allocated to the organization.

Under the provisions of the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, one proposal has been brought before Congress to eliminate funding to any specific group, forcing TFA and other similar organizations to compete instead for $235 million in grant funding.

Recent LSA graduate Joel Berger — who will be working as a TFA member in Detroit — said he feels that he and his fellow teachers can help the city only if they respect the existing community and its members.

“I think the key thing for any Teach For America corps member is to realize going into Detroit that they shouldn’t view themselves as a savior, because that’s not what the city needs,” Berger said.

Alton James, a recent Rackham graduate and TFA teacher headed to Detroit, said he understands some of the anger directed towards the organization. But, as someone who grew up in Detroit, James said the city’s education system could use some fresh faces.

“It’s something new, something exciting, something to invigorate education right now in Detroit,” James said.

Berger added that he feels that TFA’s partnership with the University is essential in assisting Detroit’s pubic school system.

“I think the University of Michigan is a critical player in figuring out how we’re going to rebuild and revitalize the city,” he said.


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