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For those students looking to help Detroit, Teach for America not an option

BY STEPHANIE BERLIANT
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 27, 2010

Last year, Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, declared that the district faced a “reading emergency.”

At that time, Detroit Public Schools established The Reading Corp — a program that calls for volunteers to tutor Detroit public school students in reading for a total of 100,000 hours — after results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test revealed students in Detroit Public Schools had the lowest scores in the nation.

Despite these low scores, Detroit remains without one of the most visible national organizations working to improve troubled public school systems around the country: Teach for America.

TFA — a program that places recent college graduates with schools in low-income areas to teach for a period of two years — first came to Detroit in 2001. And though the University has consistently been a leader in applicants to TFA, the program departed from the nearby city after only two years there.

TFA spokesperson, Kaitlin Gastrock, said the program decided to remove participants from Detroit due to district-wide downsizing.

“There weren’t enough positions available for our corps members’ positions,” she said. “It came as a result of a shrinking student population and budget challenges the district faced.”

At the end of the first year in Detroit, it remained uncertain whether TFA teachers would be guaranteed placements the next year. It was then that TFA made the decision not to send any more participants to the city. The teachers already there were given the choice to finish their two-year commitments to Detroit or move elsewhere.

Adding to the problems was a fracture in TFA’s partnership with Marygrove College, the school from which TFA teachers were receiving their certification. TFA eventually decided to terminate the partnership, sending them to continue their education at Wayne State University instead.

It was in Nov. 2001 when Ryan Gall, then a Teach for America teacher stationed in Detroit, found out he’d be transferring to a different public school across town. Gall said when he was forced to move to another school he felt as though he was “losing his kids.”

“I was teaching an astronomy unit, and I had just glued stars and planets all over the walls,” he said. “The whole room was transformed to a solar system for the next day. That night I found out I’d be transferring to a new school in the middle of that year, and I was devastated.”

Upon entering his new school, Westside Multicultural Academy, Gall said he experienced his fair share of challenges. The fifth-grade class he taught was comprised of kids taken from two other classes in the middle of the year.

“I said, ‘Oh my Lord, it’s November and I’m starting the first day of school,” he said.

Gall said his students literally kicked and screamed on the floor and received a number of suspensions when he first started. But by the end of the year, his students had made a year and a half’s worth of progress.

Classroom challenges like these are to be expected for many TFA teachers across the country. But Gall said being transferred was rarely experienced outside of Detroit. Most teachers in the city were transferred at least once and some weren’t placed until well after the first day of school, he said.

At the end of his first year, Gall heard TFA would be ending its partnership with Detroit Public Schools after his second year, making his the only class of TFA teachers to work in Detroit.

According to Gall, the majority of TFA teachers in Detroit, including himself, decided to stay in the city. But despite choosing to remain in Detroit, only a handful were offered teaching positions after their second year.

“Myself and my roommates all finished out the end of the second year and they pretty much told all of us they had no place for us to stay,” Gall said. “A lot of us scattered to the winds, and only about 5 or 6 teachers got job offers.”

According to a February 20, 2009 Detroit News article, it was widely believed the Detroit Federation of Teachers — the Detroit Public Schools teachers union — pressured the district into getting rid of the TFA teachers.

Gall agreed with this assessment, and said the teachers’ union played a key role in TFA’s departure.

“The whole state of Michigan is extremely unionized,” he said. “Teachers’ unions run whatever alternative teaching placements there are. If the union doesn’t support something, it doesn’t have much of a chance. And the unions were not in love with TFA.”

Detroit Public School administrators and the Detroit Federation of Teachers did not return phone calls or e-mails from The Michigan Daily.

TFA officials are currently exploring the option of returning to Detroit within the next few years.

In an e-mail interview, Ify Offor, vice president of new site development for TFA, wrote there has been “a lot of local support for bringing Teach For America to Detroit.”

According to Offor, TFA has been talking with city leaders including Mike Tenbusch of the United Way and officials in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s office.

Though University graduates interested in TFA don’t have the option of being placed in Detroit, many undergraduates participate in various programs in the Detroit metro area, with student organizations working at Detroit Public Schools.

LSA senior Hannah Lieberman is a member of The Detroit Partnership, a student group that does volunteer work in Detroit. After being involved with the organization for three and a half years and now the director of the group’s School Program Team, Lieberman said Detroit’s need for qualified teachers is apparent.

Lieberman said Detroit’s noncompliance with TFA is surprising given the school district’s lack of resources.

“It’s a huge hole in their ideology,” she said. “In an area of such need and especially in a school system that’s really struggling with changing administrations, not meeting 'Adequate Yearly Progress' as determined by No Child Left Behind, Detroit Public Schools could use really great teachers.”

Today, Gall is the principal of Indianapolis Lighthouse College Preparatory Academy, but his affection for Detroit hasn't waned.

“If someone were to call me tomorrow, I think I’d jump at the opportunity (to return to Detroit),” Gall said. “Not that I don’t love it here, but I’ve told wife many times I would’ve taught there until retirement. I love the kids; I love the city. Detroit’s a punchline all over our media these days, but something about Detroit grows on you.”