Hoping to help Twin Cities area schools close their achievement gap, the national service program Teach for America announced Tuesday that it will expand into the metropolitan area this fall, almost 20 years after the program was founded.

The program, which puts new college graduates in rural and poor urban districts for two years, says it will place teachers in the Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center schools as well as area charter schools.

"There is a massive achievement gap here," said Daniel Sellers, executive director for Teach for America in the Twin Cities. "We bring in a highly talented pool of strong classroom leaders and provide a lot of training and consistent ongoing support through their first two years in the classroom."

The program, which has raised objections from teachers' unions, plans to place 40 teachers in the Twin Cities this fall, add 40 more next year and maintain a group of 80 teachers in the area into the future.

"Every kind of program we can find where we increase the chances of getting good, solid teachers from a variety of backgrounds, we've got to try," said Keith Lester, superintendent of the Brooklyn Center schools, which are getting three teachers to add to their staff of 130.

Getting into the program has become increasingly competitive, and record numbers of college seniors are applying in the face of a tight job market, Sellers said.

In an era of school budget cuts, however, the program has teachers unions from Baltimore to Boston complaining that the program's pool of lower-paid teachers was making it easier for districts to lay off more experienced teachers. Sellers said that the Twin Cities program has worked with the Minneapolis union to make sure new teachers aren't bumping district teachers from their jobs.

Teachers in Teach for America are paid the same salary as beginning teachers in the districts, which is $37,000 in Minneapolis and $33,000 in Brooklyn Center. They are also union members, but most do not have traditional teaching licenses.

In Minnesota, the Teach for America teachers will enroll at Hamline University to obtain their state teaching certification while teaching. They also will go through a five-week intensive course this summer, in Los Angeles, where they will teach summer school and take classes.

"I'm disappointed," said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union. "We are expecting more and more from our students ... so it doesn't seem like a time to be experimenting and asking less of those that are going to be educated by our kids."

Dooher cited a 2005 Stanford University study that found that certified teachers consistently produce stronger student achievement gains than noncertified teachers, including Teach for America recruits. Teach for America, however, cites a 2008 Urban Institute study that found that high school students taught by Teach for America teachers outperformed their peers.

Teach for America's mission, according to its website, is to "build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation's most promising future leaders in the effort."

In Minneapolis last year almost 74 percent of white students were proficient on state math tests, compared with 22 percent of black students. In Brooklyn Center, the breakdown was 51 percent of white students compared with 19 percent of black students. The Medtronic Foundation and the General Mills Foundation were the founding investors of the program in the Twin Cities, pledging $600,000 each over three years.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460


• Visit the website for Teach for America at www.teachforamerica.org.

• See the Stanford study at www.ncate.org/documents/EdNews/StanfordTeacherCertificationReport.pdf.

• See the Urban Institute study at www.caldercenter.org/upload/TFA_final_v-March-2009.pdf.