Teach for America succeeds in Milwaukee

Dr. William Pink lectures about how to relate to the students in a graduate-level Teach for America course offered at Marquette. Photo by Cy Kondrick / Cy.Kondrick@Marquette.edu

Twenty-one years ago, Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America, an organization that places graduate students in high-need classrooms across the country. What started with 500 corps members in six cities has now expanded to more than 8,000 active corps members in 39 cities across America.

Two years ago, TFA was established in Milwaukee, and placed more than 80 teachers throughout the Milwaukee Public School system for the 2009-2010 school year.

“We came in knowing we were going to be surprised by different things,” said Garrett Bucks, executive director for Milwaukee TFA. “Everything was a surprise, everything was a challenge. We knew it was going to be hard work.”

Bucks said there are currently 88 teachers in Milwaukee schools, and they all work around the clock to ensure their students are getting the best education possible.

Due to budget shortfalls in MPS, some TFA teachers in Milwaukee are placed in charter schools, which is not the case in many other regions with TFA programs.

“That’s different, but that’s just as exciting,” Bucks said. “They’re still teaching and helping kids in Milwaukee.”

According to William Henk, dean of the College of Education and professor of literacy at Marquette, TFA students are assigned placements that can be rigorous, especially for new teachers.

“I will tell you that probably every one of them struggles, at least a little, because being a teacher is very hard to do,” Henk said.

Dreaming of success

Teachers agree that the TFA path is also mentally taxing. Amanda Mehr, a first-year TFA corps member and recent Marquette graduate, said it is troubling to consider the fact that many of her students probably won’t go to college because of their inability to pay tuition, receive scholarships, or in many cases, are not legal citizens.

“I don’t think about it at all while I’m teaching; you can’t,” Mehr said.

One of Mehr’s TFA colleagues at the Carmen High School of Science and Technology, Brett Elwell, said college isn’t always the goal for his students.

“It becomes more about trying to form … citizens of this country … not necessarily that are going to college, but hopefully that will just be good people,” Elwell said.

But TFA wants a college education to be the goal for the students it affects, and is working hard to send them in that direction. Bucks said since TFA has worked with MPS, they have seen an increase in the yearly improvement rate of reading levels for students. Previously, children’s reading levels were improving at a rate of .4 to .6 years in one school year. Now, students in TFA classrooms are progressing 1.3 to 1.5 years in a school year.

“This is becoming so necessary if we’re going to have kids who are coming in, through no fault of their own, behind academically,” Bucks said. “We need to make more than a year of growth with them each year to get them prepared for college. That’s the most exciting thing that makes me really proud of that group.”

Mehr, who teaches high school seniors, said she recognizes what needs to change in order for her students to succeed on a collegiate level.

“I know what (my students) are going to have to do next year and if (they) are doing it like this, it’s not going to work,” Mehr said, referring to the level of work her high school senior students are accustomed to performing at.

Bucks wants to focus on making sure the bar for achievement in MPS is the same as in high-income communities.

“We want to make sure that our kids aren’t just getting A’s on the work that we give them, but that they would get A’s on work that their peers up in Whitefish Bay or over in Brookfield are doing too,” Bucks said.

In order for TFA to accomplish its goals, Elwell said TFA teachers need to commit themselves to more than simply the two-year run as a corps member.

“What excites me right now is what (the first) class is planning on doing now that they’re officially finished with Teach for America,” Bucks said. “The vast majority of them are choosing to stay in the classroom … and to stay in Milwaukee … they are starting to dream.”

According to Henk, 30 percent of TFA corps members choose teaching as their career, while another 40 percent remain involved in education outside of the classroom.

Funding the dream

Something that will help TFA continue to grow and dream is a $100 million endowment, donated to the organization by major philanthropists at the beginning of this year.

“This milestone comes at a critical moment as we reflect on the progress we have made over the last 20 years while recommitting ourselves to building the leadership force for educational excellence and equity,” Kopp said in a Jan. 27 press release.

This endowment will generate two percent of the national operating budget, which was $210 million last year, Kaitlin Gastrock, regional communications director for TFA, said in an e-mail. Other funds will work toward improving national recruitment and training programs, as well as ensuring TFA future financial stability.

“The endowment represents a vote of confidence in Teach for America by four of the nation’s leading philanthropists: the Broads, the Arnolds, the Robertson family and the Mandels,” Gastrock said.

Responding to criticism

Some people criticize TFA for placing young, inexperienced teachers in difficult classrooms with little or no first-hand experience.

Christopher Sover, another colleague of Mehr and Elwell’s, said he understands that viewpoint, but thinks it falls on the corps members to remove that stigma.

“I can see why people would be so critical of TFA when they see us as these charged-up people who are going to get our asses kicked for two years and then just quit,” Sover said. “You also need corps members who aren’t doing this for a resume builder and … are just going to get burnt out after two years and go ahead and apply to med school (or) apply to law school.”

Bucks emphasized that Milwaukee’s corps members are a dedicated bunch.

“Anyone who has a concern about whether our folks are A: committed and B: effective for their kids, I would invite them to spend a day visiting classrooms with me,” Bucks said.

MPS did not respond to requests for comments on this topic, but Elwell, Mehr and Sover all said they receive good support from their fellow teachers and administrators. Sover said some have asked to observe him in the classroom.

Natalia Antas, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, has been accepted to the Chicago TFA program for next year.

“I’m just nervous about not being accepted by my co-workers,” Antas said. “There is a negative stigma among the education community about TFA because they feel we’re stealing (their) jobs.”

Gastrock said this view is not prominent among educators in Chicago, where TFA has been active since 2000.

“In our most recent survey of partner principles, 92 percent of Chicago school leaders reported that their (TFA) corps members made a positive difference in their school(s) and 80 percent said they would hire another (TFA) corps member,” Gastrock said.

Looking forward

After two years in the city, members of Milwaukee TFA are beginning to contemplate what needs to happen in order for the program to continue to grow and develop.

Henk said continuing the constant communication between TFA and the two universities with which it partners in Milwaukee (Marquette and Cardinal Stritch University), is going to be crucial in the coming years. He compared the TFA experience to that of the Peace Corps, and said it is extremely mission-focused.

“They recruit corps members who are just like Marquette students: they’re bright, they’re articulate, they’re passionate, they have a social conscience,” Henk said. “So, they’re a good blend for us because when they’re taking their courses … they’re just like our other students.”

Henk said both TFA and university collaborators need to share the same goals and speak the same language in order for either to be successful.

Bucks said he would like to continue to develop the training corps members receive before they begin teaching in classrooms.

“We’re pleased with how our teachers are performing and how we train them, but we always think that our teachers can get better and, in particular, that our teachers can set even more kids on the track to college,” Bucks said.