After vocal opposition, a delayed decision, and energetic debate, the San Francisco School Board voted to renew its contract with Teach For America to hire its usual 15 teaching corps members to work in “hard-to-fill” positions in the city’s schools.
Superintendent Richard Carranza recently implored the board to give him the tools he needed to staff city schools amidst a teacher shortage by increasing the contract from 15 corps members to 24, but at the beginning of discussion yesterday he amended the contract to return to its status quo.
Four members of the board voted against the contract, and dozens of traditionally credentialed teachers attended the board meeting to try to dissuade the rest of the board from renewing. Just as many Teach for America staff and teachers filled the meeting room to support contract renewal.
From both camps, a large portion came from Everett Middle School, something of a flashpoint for the controversy because of its high concentration of teaching corps members and alums.
“The issue has become highly charged and emotional,” said Board President Emily Murase. She reminded listeners to keep the conversation civil. “We’re all here to do what’s best for our children,” she said.
And indeed, it was the students everyone was worried about, but the contention over the teaching corps seems to be rooted in differing opinions on what’s worse for students: Placing inexperienced corps members with their standard five weeks of training in a classroom full of already troubled students, or having no teachers available for those classrooms at all.
“I would love it if every teacher who came through our doors was a ten year veteran with strong content knowledge, cultural competency, and a social justice mindset” said Chris Garza, an Everett teacher and 2003 teaching corps alum. “But as those of us who work in schools know, hardly any of these teachers are banging down the doors at Everett and other hard-to-staff schools trying to teach our children.”
Members of both Teach for America and teachers’ unions said that this is because support and compensation for teachers in San Francisco is simply not enough to keep up with the high cost of living and therefore the city fails to attract experienced teachers.
Opponents of the teaching corps contract had another option in mind: Use the money that would go to the Teach for America contract to help fund San Francisco’s internal teacher training programs that source would-be career teachers from local universities, the Teacher Residency Program and a program for training paraprofessionals.
“We have alternatives,” said Andy Lipsom, a teacher at Mission High School. “If we have the money to train people, those are the programs we should use it for.”
But for some Everett staffers, the problem isn’t just minimal training.
Jose Luis Pavón, a paraprofessional at Everett, says his problem isn’t with the teachers who come from Teach for America, but with the nonprofit’s political history of supporting charter schools over public education.
He also says his school has been taken over by Teach for America teachers at the expense of more experienced instructors. His colleague Maritza Olguín, a bilingual English teacher with 13 years of instruction under her belt, says she’s leaving because of what she sees as a teaching corps “clique” of ten members there.
“I used to be a teacher leader,” Olguín said before the meeting. She said she feels increasingly pushed aside by Teach for America alums who are now on staff, including the principal and an assistant principal at Everett. “Now I’m on lunch duty…They’re not using my skills,” she added.
Olguín plans to leave the school and look for a teaching position at a school in Southern California, in part to get away from the atmosphere at Everett, and in part to be closer to her family. After she leaves, Olguín estimated only three or four non-Teach for America teachers will remain at the school.
“When you’re trying to turn the entire school into a charter school…That’s not okay,” she said.
And it’s not the goal, according to Beatrice Viramontes, Senior Managing Director for Teach for America’s Bay Area division. Rather, the goal is to assist with a dire need for teachers.
“We’re not saying we’re the solution, but we know we want to be a critical source,” Viramontes said. “Until the opportunity gap closes, we’re going to be here.”
But that’s a much bigger challenge. And after Tuesday’s vote, it looks like Teach for America will be around for a while.