In Detroit, Teach for America corps members have a chance to make an impact on one of the country’s most disadvantaged school districts.
The school district is in such financial disrepair that last May Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, Roy Roberts, to oversee the school district’s use of funds.
Despite the lack of resources, Detroit schools that choose to partner with Teach for America pay the organization an average of $3,000 for each TFA corps member employed, in addition to paying corps members a starting teacher’s salary.
TFA spokesperson Rebecca Neale wrote in an e-mail interview that TFA uses the $3,000 in Detroit to cover the program’s recruitment, its training program and to support its teachers. Nationally, schools partnered with Teach for America paid an average of $2,700 per corps member employed last year, according to Neale.
Keith Johnson, the head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers — the union representing Detroit Public School teachers — questions why the schools don’t use the extra money to give students access to more educational materials.
“Wouldn’t that $3,000 be better served buying some additional books or supplemental material?” he asked.
David Patterson, chief administrative officer at Woodward Academy — a pre-K through eighth grade gated charter school in Detroit — said his district decided to hire four corps members last year and three more this year. For him, the decision was made based on quality rather than cost.
“Every penny has some weight on a decision, but we’re really looking for quality and that’s going to outweigh everything,” Patterson said.
But as Johnson sees it, the schools should focus more on providing for the children, not an organization.
“I have no idea why schools would choose to do that,” Johnson said. “There’s absolutely no justification for that.”
The Detroit Public Schools Office of Communications failed to respond to repeated phone and e-mail attempts. Individual Detroit public schools are not authorized to speak without permission from the communications office.
Charter versus public
TFA returned to Detroit in 2010 after a seven year absence from the city. The organization originally left Detroit in 2003 when it could no longer guarantee placement for corps members, according to Ify Offor, TFA’s vice president of new site development.
Today, TFA corps members teach in 55 schools across the area, reaching a total of 10,000 students.
Seventy percent of TFA Detroit teachers work in public charter schools, while the rest are in traditional public schools. Forty-five of the schools are located in metro Detroit.
Though public schools and charter schools both receive public funding, students have to apply to attend charter schools. Charter schools also often have longer school days and a central theme, such as leadership or justice.
One of the goals of TFA Detroit is to have more than a 90 percent citywide high school graduation rate by 2020, Annis Brown, executive director of TFA Detroit, said.
At the University Preparatory Academy High School, a TFA partner school in the city that already has a graduation rate above 90 percent, principal Danielle Jackson said the corps members are positively impacting student learning.
“They’ve been able to do very well and grow as young teachers,” Jackson said.
In an interview on Jan. 19, Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, said while it’s not ideal to have TFA members in mostly charter schools, TFA will work to place its members in more traditional public schools.
“I think the situation in Detroit, given the economic constraints, budget constraints, fiscal issues in the district, has, in the past, prevented us from placing a lot of people in DPS,” Kopp said. “That being said, that will change.
“Given how Detroit is progressing, we could be placing hundreds of people in the highest-need schools,” she added.
Brown attributes the prevalence of TFA members in charter schools to the increasing number of charter schools in the city.
“When we came in, we made a conscious effort to really think about how we would partner with both charters and DPS,” Brown said. “Just because charters serve so many of our kids, and kids keep going to charters every year as DPS’ enrollment goes down.”
The problem with public schools
Johnson filed a class action grievance against the Detroit Public School District on Sept. 28 for placing TFA members in positions that laid-off teachers were capable of filling, according to the DFT website.
Johnson and the teachers union only have jurisdiction over traditional public schools and the 14 Detroit charter schools currently authorized by DPS, so they can’t contest hiring practices at other charter schools in the city.
“The only time that I will allow Teach for America to come into Detroit Public Schools is if there is a shortage of teachers in that affected area, like math, like science, like foreign language,” Johnson said.
At all other times, Johnson said he doesn’t want to see TFA teachers in the schools.
“I do not intend to ever have Teach for America as a stand-in within Detroit public schools and the DFT,” he added.
However, Brown contests the idea that TFA teachers are taking jobs from school teachers, as TFA members are the last to go through the same interview process to allow professional teachers priority access.
“We’re not taking jobs,” Brown said. “We just set a great group of folks in front of principals and ask them to decide.”