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Teach For America is good for Minnesota

  • Article by: CRYSTAL BRAKKE and MATT KRAMER
  • July 31, 2013 - 9:09 PM

This Friday, the Minnesota Board of Teaching faces the critical decision of whether to empower principals to hire the educators they believe will meet the needs of students in their schools.

These editorial pages have recently hosted passionate debate about Teach for America’s work to strengthen schools in the Twin Cities’ under-resourced communities. The passion tells us that we collectively realize that our shared future depends on educating all children, including children of immigrants and low-income communities who now account for 33 percent of our community’s youth.

It is hard to square the educational outcomes of Minnesota’s highest-need students with our belief in equal opportunity. The state’s four-year high school graduation rates for black and Latino students hover around 50 percent. For Native American students, it’s barely above 40 percent. We have the lowest Latino and Native American graduation rates in the country; for black students, Minnesota ranks 49th out of the 50 states.

This situation, and our shared role in permitting it, weighs on our state’s future and our collective soul.

Educators and advocates across Minnesota are working valiantly to change this reality. Despite a system that is not equipped to address the additional challenges of poverty that too many children face, there are many bright spots that prove that all students can succeed if we believe in their potential and provide necessary support.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and several charter schools brought Teach for America to Minnesota in 2009 as one additional source of diverse teaching talent. We recruit recent college graduates and midcareer professionals with strong leadership qualities and a deep commitment to teach in our most under-resourced communities. We emphasize recruiting teachers who share their students’ backgrounds.

Our teacher preparation is based on the idea that teaching is a skill that develops through hands-on experience and mentorship. We start with pre-service summer training, and then invest heavily over two years in ongoing coaching and support, along with a licensure program at Hamline University designed for teachers working in the classroom.

Ours certainly isn’t the only way to bring people into the teaching profession, but we think it is one good approach. And the evidence — and the experiences of local principals — strongly support that.

It’s important to note that our teachers get hired like anybody else. Principals post vacancies, search for candidates and conduct interviews. If they conclude that the best fit for their school is a Teach for America teacher, they seek a temporary license from the Minnesota Department of Education or a temporary waiver from the Minnesota Board of Teaching, an eleven-member board appointed by Gov. Dayton.

For many years, the board has deferred to principals on hiring decisions, considering these waiver requests in a group to limit the burden on schools.

This year, the board changed its approach, with the option to review each Teach for America candidate individually.

We support the board’s desire to ensure that we’re bringing in the most effective teachers for Minnesota’s children. But we have some concerns about the process thus far.

Last month, the board considered 24 applicants for waivers and passed 16 without individual review. They chose to review eight applications individually — all of whom were connected to Teach for America. They denied three, noting that the principals were not directly available to answer questions.

This Friday, the board will consider applications from a new group of Teach for America-affiliated teachers plus reapplications from last month, along with over 100 other applications from across the state.

Last year, the board approved all 355 of the individual waivers that were requested by principals.

Among the teachers the board will meet and consider this Friday is Jonathan Filzen, a Richfield Public Schools graduate who attended the University of Minnesota and is going to be teaching English as a Second Language at Venture Academy. Another is Paula Cole, a mother of one from the Dominican Republic, who will serve as a Spanish bilingual teacher for MPS this upcoming school year.

Thirty percent of our incoming teachers identify as people of color, in a state where less than 4 percent of current teachers do, and half graduated from a Minnesota college or university.

This is a group of extraordinary people looking forward to teaching our state’s most underserved kids. Schools are counting on these teachers. Principals are committed to them and students will be arriving in the next few weeks. Every principal and teacher will be at the board meeting in person to answer additional questions.

We hope that the board will continue to trust principals’ judgment and support them in hiring the best teachers for their students and their schools.

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Crystal Brakke is executive director and Matt Kramer is co-CEO of Teach for America-Twin Cities.

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