Teach For America: A Primer

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Susanna Preziosi is one of the 999 first- and second-year teachers placed in over 300 disadvantaged schools in Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx and Brooklyn, as part of New York City’s chapter of Teach for America.

Teach for America, affiliated with AmeriCorps, places young people with no education school background, and usually just out of college, in disadvantaged school districts suffering from teacher shortages.

The program was started in 1990 by a Princeton senior named Wendy Kopp, who proposed the idea in her graduate thesis, then raised $2.5 million and hired 500 people to teach in underserved public schools in New York, Los Angeles, North Carolina, New Orleans and Louisiana. Today, Teach for America has 90 recruiters, 26 chapters nationwide, and 5,000 active teachers who boast an average college GPA of 3.6 and an average SAT score of 1321.

In thespring of 2000, the New York City Department of Education launched a similar program, New York City Teaching Fellows, to address what it called “the most severe teacher shortage in New York’s public school system in decades.” Today, 8,000 NYC Teaching Fellows are teaching in the hardest-to-staff schools, and one in ten public school teachers in the city are Fellows. Notwithstanding that influx of newcomers into the system, New York City’s Teach for America chapter has quadrupled in size since 2003, and remains far and away the largest chapter in the country – in keeping with the scale of the task at hand.

Of the estimated 75,000 New York City public school students in the TFA placement schools (an almost exclusively minority population that is larger than each of the public school systems in Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and Atlanta), 83 percent are eligible for reduced-price lunches. Only half of New York City’s high school students graduated on time in June 2006 (up from 47 percent the year before) compared to 67 percent of public school students nationwide, according to the State Department of Education. One hundred and forty-eight of the TFA teachers embedded in our inner city, including Preziosi, teach what is commonly held to be the most challenging of classes: special education.

Inductees to Teach for America are trained in an intensive five-week training program – a teacher “boot camp” – during the summer before they start teaching. In the mornings and early afternoons, corps members teach in a district summer school program under the supervision of veteran teachers from the hosting school district and Teach for America instructional staff.
In the late afternoons and evenings, corps members participate in seminars in which they learn about lesson planning and teaching theory. New York City corps members have to pass two certification tests – the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test and the Content Specialty Test – before the school year starts.

While teaching, core members can either enroll in a teacher certification program to get a permanent New York State teaching license, or pursue a master’s degree. AmeriCorps pays $4,725 a year toward tuition.

First-year teachers in New York City make, on average, $45,530. Most TFA corps members live with roommates, who are often other corps members, in upper Manhattan, the Bronx or Brooklyn. The corps members are also usually clustered at school sites, with an average of three TFA teachers per school.

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