Teach for America to double presence in Indianapolis

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The local office of Teach for America plans to double the number of teachers it trains each year, a move driven by recently passed school reforms and state intervention in failing schools.

The New York-based not-for-profit, which opened shop in Indianapolis in 2008, plans to train 100 teachers in the summer of 2012, up from 50 this year, then to sustain that larger number and perhaps grow it further in future years.

To pull off this growth, Teach for America says it needs to raise new funding of $1.4 million per year. Currently, Teach for America receives contributions of $2.25 million a year—from such organizations as The MindTrust, Lilly Endowment and the Fairbanks Foundation—to fund its recruitment, training and support of its Indianapolis teachers.

“We’re actually at that window where that [transformational] change is possible,” said Pat O’Donnell, executive director of Teach for America in Indianapolis. “But if you don’t have a plan for human capital—where you have a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every school—whatever reform you put in place will not be successful.”

pat odonnell O’Donnell

O’Donnell thinks Teach for America should be a major part of a pipeline of new teachers, which could be tapped by private-school operators that might be given control of some of Indianapolis Public Schools’ campuses with the worst test scores. The Indiana Department of Education was set to announce on July 22 which schools would face such intervention.

O’Donnell said a state law passed this year making it easier to launch charter schools also should bolster demand for a new crop of teachers.

He said that if Teach for America could account for one-quarter of the roughly 400 new teachers hired each year in Marion County public schools, he thinks the organization could begin to have a citywide impact.

Teach for America trained 75 teachers in 2010, but found it more difficult to find spots for them at public schools. So it backed down to 50 for this year. But with recent events, O’Donnell said, the time is right to ramp up.

“What’s happening in Indianapolis is pretty unique,” he said. “It creates an environment that allows you to start changing things at a system level.”

The recent reforms passed by the state Legislature—including a rollback of collective bargaining rights, a requirement for performance-based teacher evaluations (and the subsequent pay, promotion and dismissal decisions), and the charter school expansion—give a lot of momentum to reform-minded groups like Teach for America.

Similar reforms supported by the Obama administration also have prompted Teach for America to expand rapidly across the country. It is training 5,200 teachers this year, up 16 percent from last year and more than double from its levels five years ago.

Teach for America recruits college seniors, most of whom did not train to be teachers, and prepares them to work for two years in poor school districts, both urban and rural.

The organization has had success getting graduates of even the most prestigious colleges to apply. For example, 12 percent of graduating seniors from DePauw University applied for Teach for America, as did 9 percent of seniors at the University of Notre Dame.

Kevin Teasley, CEO of the GEO Foundation, says Teach for America members have made a big impact on all four of the charter schools his not-for-profit manages. At GEO’s two schools in Indianapolis—Fall Creek and Fountain Square academies—14 of the teachers came through Teach for America.

“They are very energetic. And they will have a transformative nature and impact on any school district and particularly any school,” Teasley said.

He noted that Teach for America member Tony Homan helped Fountain Square sharply increase students’ pass rates on the math portion of the state standardized ISTEP last year.

Lou Schwitzer, a sixth-grade teacher at IPS School 67, agreed that the Teach for America members he’s worked with have been hard-working and in some cases highly effective.

Still, he said they are no replacement for teachers who go through several years of training on how to manage classrooms, connect with kids, and differentiate instruction.

The biggest complaint about Teach for America members is that they stay only two years. Teasley acknowledged that, noting that GEO’s Fall Creek school is losing middle school math teacher Tom Hakim, a Teach for America member whose students achieved a 93-percent pass rate on the math portion of ISTEP last year.

“It hurts the students to see teachers leave,” Teasley said, though he noted some, like Homan, are staying beyond their two-year commitment. “It is a challenge.”

But in its best cases, Teach for America gets college graduates into the neediest schools and they end up staying.

Chad Miller, who was an education major at Butler University, joined Teach for America and worked the past two years at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. He said he worked 10 to 12 hours per day and some on weekends to help students master algebra and pass the End-of-Course Assessment required for graduation.

Now Miller has been selected by Teach for America to go through an intensive Columbia University principal training program, which at the very least commits him to four more years in an Indianapolis school. He’ll return to Indy Met in August as a trainer for other teachers.

“It’s such a wonderful job. I never get bored,” Miller said.•

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