July 31, 2008

Monsanto Fund Boosts Teachers

By Kavita Kumar, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 31--The drive to recruit more math and science teachers got a push earlier this week with a $1 million, four-year grant from the Monsanto Fund to Teach for America-St. Louis.

The grant's focus is to increase the groups' teachers with math and science degrees. That also happens to be one of the goals of Teach for America.

Teach for America places high-achieving college graduates in urban and rural schools for two years. The St. Louis chapter has about 170 corps members teaching in the St. Louis Public Schools, as well as in the Wellston and Normandy school districts and city charter schools.

About 37 of those teachers in the St. Louis region currently have expertise in math, science and engineering -- a number that has doubled in the last two years. Dustin Odham, Teach for America-St. Louis executive director, said that his group wanted to continue to have at least 20 percent of its teaching corps with math and science degrees, but that it was an ambitious target, especially as the group tries to grow to 200 corps members by 2010.

Teach for America began in St. Louis in 2002 with 40 corps members and has steadily grown since.

Math and science majors are often highly coveted by employers, Odham said. Many receive lucrative job offers from businesses, so it can be a challenge to lure graduates into teaching, he said.

"They have a lot of other opportunities," he said. "Everybody loves engineers."

The Monsanto Fund's grant is Teach for America-St. Louis' largest gift to date. The group has a budget of about $3.1 million, all of which comes from area donors. Teach for America recruits, selects, trains and gives ongoing professional development to its teaching corps -- at a cost of about $20,000 for each member, Odham said.

The school districts where they teach, though, pay the corps members' salaries.

Deborah Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund, said this was the charitable arm's third and largest gift to Teach for America-St. Louis. "If you have a math teacher that can make math fun and exciting, make science cool, then kids will like science," she said. "Kids will rise to the occasion. That's what we've seen time and again with Teach for America corps members. They can get that something extra from the kid."

As a condition of the grant, Teach for America must reach certain benchmarks such as showing improvement in test scores and increasing the number of qualified math and science teachers, Patterson said.

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