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Taught For America: What happens next for TFA corps members?

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Teach For America turned twenty this year—which is a year older than the organization’s youngest 2010 corps member. The national education reform organization celebrated this anniversary with an alumni summit held February 12, 2011 in Washington, DC, which drew nearly 11,000 attendees.

Over the course of twenty years the Teach For America corps has expanded from 500 to 8,200 teachers, mostly recent college graduates, currently serving over 500,000 students in low-income communities across the nation. The organization’s competitiveness has grown exponentially: in 2010, for instance, 46,366 candidates applied to join the corps of 4,500 teachers.

Despite its increased popularity as a career path among top college graduates, the organization is not without its detractors. A common criticism is that the commitment to teaching that corps members make is only for two years.

However, according to research that extends back to the 1990 corps, 67 percent of TFA alumni remain in education in some capacity. 52 percent are still involved with K-12 education. In addition, 12 percent of TFA alumni have risen to district and school leadership positions, serving as principals, superintendents, and various other administrative roles.

These statistics indicate that the rate at which TFA teachers remain in teaching is comparative with the education field as a whole: 33 percent of all American teachers leave teaching within their first three years, while 42 percent leave within the first five.

Cary Kaufman, a third-year Special Education resource teacher and TFA alum, explains that one’s ability to support students grows each year, “The truth is that the third year is beyond the first or second year by exponential comparison in regards to understanding knowledge, reaching out to the students…Every year the students become more and more my children.” Cary splits his time between multiple elementary schools in Oakland Unified School District, serving students with various learning disabilities. At one of his sites he is the second most senior teacher because of East Oakland’s high turnover rate. He has committed to teaching for a fourth year.

Yet Teach For America’s theory of change has never been focused solely on grooming new teachers. By recruiting elite graduates and investing them in closing the achievement gap, TFA believes that it can produce a generation of future policy makers in both the public and private sectors that will make education reform a priority.

Leslie Garner, Managing Director of Alumni Affairs in TFA’s Bay Area office, explains that TFA believes in a holistic approach to education reform, “There’s not a silver bullet solution…We do believe that all kids can achieve at the highest level no matter where they come from, no matter who their parents are…But we also believe it’s going to take other sectors being led and run and staffed by people that believe that, too.…We need a raised political awareness. We need elected officials that actually believe all kids can learn.”

In 2007 Teach For America launched a sister organization, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) dedicated to supporting reform-minded politicians, many of whom are TFA alumni. “We’ve seen some big changes come as a result of alums being in elected office,” says Leslie, referring to Michael Johnston, a freshman State Senator in Colorado and alum of the 1997 corps, who authored an education reform bill recently passed by Colorado that will require teachers to be evaluated each year according to their students’ academic growth.

With this philosophy of change through multiple sectors in mind, to truly judge TFA’s effectiveness one must investigate whether or not alumni that move into other fields remain active in the movement.

Jeni Fruden grew up in Iowa before attending the University of Michigan. Her mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, who met her father while he served in that country as a member of the Peace Corps. Jeni explains that growing up she was very aware of the importance of education in determining one’s future opportunities, “Having one parent who is an immigrant and another parent who has a master’s in business, it was always very clear to me the differences in opportunity as a result of educational opportunity. So my mom didn’t have the opportunity to go to college…When she was twelve she went to work as a maid for another family, compared to my dad who…attended amazing schools.”

“I knew that these inequities were really important to me, and interesting to me, and that I wanted to do something to work to combat those inequities,” says Jeni of her desire to work for change. She considered following father’s footsteps into the Peace Corps, but explains, “When I investigated it further I just came to realize that I didn’t have to travel to do that. Those same issues are here, where I already live, where my family is, in America where most people don’t think these challenges occur. So for me Teach For America was a better choice.”

Jeni joined the Bay Area corps in 2006, assigned to teach sixth grade English at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland. After her corps member experienced ended, Jeni taught at the school for an additional year. She describes how her teaching practice evolved each year, “First year management is difficult...Then when I got my first year test scores back I realized that I did a great job of teaching to the lower and the middle, but it was my high students that I didn’t reach. My second year I really focused on differentiating...My third year I tried to focus more on experiential learning and topics more relevant to the students.”

Jeni made the decision to stay for a third year based on her excitement of progress being made under the leadership of the school’s principal, who she calls “amazing.” However, once Edna Brewer’s principal was promoted to a district leadership position, various school-wide plans fell through under the new administration, “Your first year you’re just trying to keep your head above water…But by your third year you know all the things that your students actually need and when you aren’t getting the support you need to make those things happen it’s really emotionally and professionally challenging…A lot of the big changes we were planning on, just didn’t happen. ”

If she had stayed on to teach for a fourth year, it would have been under yet another new administration, “I just wasn’t willing to go through that turmoil again…In any job if you had a new boss every single year I think you would be discombobulated.” Jeni took six months off, during which she applied and was accepted into University of San Francisco Law School. She traveled to Europe for the first time, attending the wedding of a fellow TFA alum in Switzerland.

She then visited Southeast Asia, spending time volunteering in an orphanage in Vietnam. Working with the children in Vietnam reminded her of her students in Oakland, many of whom are Southeast Asian immigrants, and ultimately once she had returned to the U.S. she chose to spend the latter half of the school year as on-site substitute at Edna Brewer. She continued working for education reform that summer as the Deputy Institute Director for the Oakland Teaching Fellows 2010 training program.

Now in her first year of law school, Jeni plans to pursue a career in child advocacy. She will intern at Legal Services for Children in San Francisco this summer. She believes that the work of socially minded lawyers can be as important to some children as teaching, “San Francisco and the Bay Area is unique in that we have all these resources for urban children and for immigrants…I’ve realized that those other services are important for the teacher even— if you want to educate students in your classroom they can’t be worried that they’re going to be detained by ICE [US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement], or that their parents are going to be deported, or that they can’t get shelter because their landlord is trying to evict them. Stability is important in the life of child, and these other resources can help [students] get that stability.”

James Barton, a 2009 corps member, will also be entering a career in law after his teaching experience ends. James served his first year in San Francisco Unified School District, but had to transition to Aspire Berkley Maynard when he was laid off by SFUSD in the Spring of 2010. Before joining Teach For America, James had already been accepted into Law School at Stanford University, where he had also attended as an undergraduate. To participate in the corps he obtained a two year deferral from law school. However, he decided to seek an additional third year deferral after joining Aspire.

Aspire’s elementary teachers loop with their students: James currently teaches second grade and will continue with the same class as third graders. James explains that Aspire’s loop model is one of the major reasons that parents enroll their kids at the school and therefore he felt it his responsibility to commit to the model, “It would be completely unfair for me to leave them in that…I begged Stanford Law for the deferral, arguing that [the school] had a commitment to social equality.” Stanford Law agreed to grant James the rare third year deferral. He shares his excitement about the potential growth of his students next year, “I think one of the coolest things is that I can immediately tailor my instruction to where my kids are.”

James is not sure how he plans to remain in education after law school, but he knows that he will stay involved in the movement, “My time in the classroom has been transformative, and I don’t want it to be a three year blip…I used to think I had it tough [as a Stanford student], but my life was so easy compared to my kids. The resiliency of my kids amazes me.”

He is interested in eventually working on education reform advocacy in either Sacramento or Washington, hoping that his experience as a teacher could help him bridge the gap between teachers unions and supporters of reform, “I’ve spent one year as a unionized teacher, and one year non-unionized. Teacher unions are over-vilified, but at the same time there’s a lot they do that hurts…supporting policies that might be good for teachers but might not be good for kids. But they’re not going away and [lawmakers] need to find a more effective way of working with them.”

Some corps members, however, seek careers completely unrelated to education after their stint in the corps finishes. Angel Chang, a 2008 corps member for example, briefly pursued a career as a wedding planner after having taught Pre-Kindergarten for two years in Half Moon Bay with Head Start, a program that serves low-income families. Angel says that after her time in the corps ended her “head was in the clouds,” and so she chose to try out a career she had been interested in since high school, “I dabbled with wedding planning, but it didn’t fit. After working with low-income children that high income world didn’t fit…In my heart I wanted the feeling of making a difference, and I didn’t find that in the wedding world.”

Angel was part of the first crop of TFA teachers to work in Pre-K in the Bay Area. She explains how it is crucial that low-income students enter kindergarten on pace with their more middle class peers, “A lot of people were surprised that there was TFA in Half Moon Bay, but there’s a big discrepancy among the immigrant families and [the community’s] more affluent families…The kids from low-income families need to be able to compete [with their peers] when they get to kindergarten.” She describes the challenges educating early childhood education in a disadvantaged community, “I had to learn how to potty train a kid. I had students with little to no vocabulary…Students needed to learn how to share.”

After a few months as a wedding planner, Angel began to reflect on how much her corps member experience still “resonated” with her. However, she wanted to use her event planning experience. She found a position with NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropic fundraising group that invests money in various educational non-profits. Angel is a member of the event planning team for NewSchools Summit 2011, an education conference to be held on May 18th. “It’s an exciting time. A lot of anticipation builds up as we get closer to the event,” she says of her experience on the team.

Angel remains open to returning to the classroom one day, possibly as a first or second grade teacher. However, she’s not ready to plan out the rest of her career, “The CEO of NewSchools recently asked me, ‘Where do you plan to be in five years?’ But I wasn’t ready to answer that yet. Personally, I think I’ve reached a milestone [in joining NewSchools]. I’m confident that there will be opportunities in the educational reform field.”

Meredith Ely also worked in early childhood education as a member of the 2008 Chicago corps. Her first placement was with a pre-school program at a YMCA, but when TFA became aware that the program was breaking various Illinois education laws Meredith was moved to a new placement at One Hope United. She is thankful that TFA made the change, “My second placement was much more accommodating, more support networks in place, and I was able to really find a place to thrive, and to learn, and to become a good teacher. “

Meredith and another Chicago corps member began drafting plans for a charter pre-school. However, frustration with what she considered to be a lack of business savvy among her superiors, caused her to decide that she needed business experience before she could effectively run a school, “It seemed that there was a deficit in leadership skills, recruitment efforts, fiscal management, and professional development. Though these aren't exclusively nonprofit/education issues, I did recognize that if I wanted to create a scalable, sustainable, effective preschool solution, I would need a better understanding of sound business principles and operations.”

Her search for private sector opportunities brought Meredith, a Stanford graduate, back to the Bay Area. She accepted a position as the marketing manager of LearnBoost, an education technology start-up based in San Francisco. She explains that the company hopes to provide schools with software that will help boost student achievement at a low cost, “I’m really excited about LearnBoost…We create free software for teachers, that’s all in one: gradebook, lesson planning, attendance, calendars, schedules, reports and analytics. It all synchs seamlessly with Google Apps. It’s really streamlined, amazing technology that you’d expect in the Web 2.0 world, but that is lacking in education…because it’s unfortunately a very antiquated system.”

One of Meredith’s responsibilities with LearnBoost is to manage the company’s blog. Her blogging resulted in an opportunity to write education articles for The Huffington Post. Thus far many of her articles have focused on technology’s potential role in education reform. In an e-mail composed after the initial interview she writes, “Though technology is a not a magic bullet to the systemic challenges we face in the education system, I think that tech has the ability to disrupt the current model substantially through lowered costs for schools, democratized access to information, and through comparative advantage by leveraging the power of technology to free educators to focus on what they do best - which is/should be teaching.”

Emily Sievers is a 2009 corps member at Wallenberg Traditional High School in San Francisco. A graduate of MIT, she became interested in teaching after working as a tutor at MATCH Public Charter High School in Boston. During Emily’s first year teaching Physics at Wallenberg, 94.45 percent of her students scored either Proficient or Advanced on the CST. The previous year only 24 percent of Wallenberg students had tested as Proficient.

Emily achieved this incredible growth by holding her students to a higher standard than SFUSD requires, “I modeled my physics class after my high school physics class that I took. And the curriculum at the high school [I attended] was a lot more rigorous [than SFUSD’s standard curriculum]…I’m a big fan of using math in physics though the [California state] standards are much more conceptual based, so I made it a lot more rigorous. Then when we got to CST Prep [the students] were like, ‘This is so much easier,’ and they had a lot of confidence.”

Emily’s success in her first year resulted in her being made Teacher Leader for the Mathematics Department (she currently teaches Algebra, Physics, and two elective courses). Emily is one of two current corps members on the school’s Leadership team. When asked why younger teachers are taking on these roles, she responds, “In some regards that’s because we don’t have other commitments at home that would keep us from being active in the school. A lot of us have ideas and are motivated to make changes to the school…so we’ve been able to take part [on the Leadership team].”

Despite her passion for her work at Wallenberg, Emily does not plan to remain at the school next year. Instead she will pursue a PhD in Developmental Psychology studying developmental disorders such as Autism at UC Davis. Emily majored in Cognitive Sciences at MIT, but had not fully decided to focus on developmental disorders until she began teaching, “It solidified my interest [in developmental disorders] when I was teaching. I have a few students who have these developmental disorders, so it’s been really interesting to see those disorders not through a scientific lens so much as an educational lens...It’s a cool experiment for me to teach [two students with Autism] and help them deal with their disorder.”

Emily hopes that a career as a researcher will enable her help students with conditions like Autism, “Depending on how things go perhaps applying [research] to an educational setting. I feel that those students with these disorders are not always reached in public education because it’s such a mystery. So if I can have some insight on how to help teachers teach the students of these populations…I feel like I can have more of impact there. “

Ilana Somasunderam, another 2009 corps member also working at Wallenberg, is less sure of what do next. She has decided to remain at the school for a third year, teaching Biology and Chemistry. Ilana studied Environmental Science at Columbia University and intends to eventually attend graduate school to further her studies. However, she describes the difficulty in making future plans while in the midst of the school year, “There’s so much to think about with teaching. Whenever I say I’m going to think about other things, my head can’t get there. You almost feel guilty about thinking of other things when you’re in the middle of the school year.”

“I don’t think that everyone comes in with a plan for after the two years,” reflects Leslie Garner, who served in the St. Louis corps before joining the Bay Area regional staff in 2008. 61 percent of corps members choose to stay in teaching for at least one more year. Leslie explains that the organization strongly encourages corps members to extend their time in the classroom past the initial commitment, “One of the things that we’re focused on in the Bay Area specifically is the number of alumni that remain in the classroom…There are always going to be people who choose not to teach for a third year and that’s fine. But for people who are on the fence, why wouldn’t you stay for a third year?”

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