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Shelby County board members debate role of Teach For America in Memphis schools

At Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Shelby County board members and superintendent Dorsey Hopson debated the role of Teach For America in Memphis schools. The program was commended for filling spots in high-needs schools and helping stem a ‘brain drain’ in the city, but members had concerns about the program’s financial sustainability and its impact on other teachers in the district.

Teach For America came to Memphis in 2006, and has grown from a 48-person corps in its first year to a 200-member group of first-year teachers this year.

As the board discussed its contract with Teach For America and other alternative certification programs, board member David Pickler asked Laura Link, a Professional Learning & Development Specialist at the district, how long Teach For America teachers stick around in Shelby County schools.

Link’s response seemed to surprise him. She said that 92 percent of TFA corps members stay for a second year, compared to 82 percent of traditionally-recruited teachers. She said 61 percent of corps members return for a 3rd year.

“Irrespective of the numbers, we need to be utilizing our dollars to…do a better job of attracting and retaining teachers,” Pickler said. “I think TFA is a bit of a band-aid. We need to be enhancing the professionalism of teaching.”

Superintendent Hopson agreed. “It’s not financially sustainable to do this for a long period of time,” he said. Still, he said, TFA recruits have “a willingness to go into some places that are hard to staff.”

“It’s working, but it can’t be a long-term solution,” he said.

“We pay $5,000 to TFA for every teacher they place,” said superintendent Hopson. A teacher effectiveness grant from the Gates Foundation currently pays TFA’s contract, but the grant is not permanent. 

Board member David Reaves questioned whether the program had a negative affect on traditionally-certified teachers. “There’s been a significant number of emails from teachers about how we moved a lot of teachers out and we staffed TFA-ers in their place,” he said.

Hopson said, “under our contract, we can place up to 125 teachers through TFA. We hire between 900 and 1,100 new teachers each year. It’s a fraction of the number we hired.”

Reaves said it was important for the conversation about TFA and the district’s staffing strategy to be out in the open.

This article from the Commercial Appeal highlights TFA’s efforts to keep teachers in town and represent itself as an evolving organization.