September 9, 2008

MPS Gets Grant, Hope Teach for America Seeks More Funding to Put Top Graduates in City Schools


With the announcement of a $1 million grant from the Waukesha- based Kern Family Foundation on Monday, Teach for America stands on the brink of opening operations here, with the goal of putting 30 teachers in Milwaukee Public Schools classrooms by next fall.

The arrival of Teach for America, a national force in motivating high-caliber college graduates to teach in low-performing urban schools, would bolster efforts by prominent education organizations to improve the quality of new MPS teachers and principals.

Three other nationally significant organizations have begun recruiting or training new teachers and principals in MPS, and the School Board and MPS administration have been open to all of their efforts.

The surge of interest could be shown simply by listing the panelists at a Monday luncheon of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, an influential community group:

- Matthew Kramer, president and chief program officer for Teach for America, which currently has 6,200 members, many of them graduates of Ivy League colleges, working in 29 regions in the country.

- Jonathan Schnur, chief executive officer and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, which is beginning work with its second group of people being trained to become principals of Milwaukee schools. The organization is working in nine urban school districts in the U.S. and has attracted attention for its commitment to putting top-notch principals in hundreds of schools.

- Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which has worked with urban districts around the country for a decade on recruiting and training more than 30,000 teachers. A study by the organization last year was a key factor in significant changes in how MPS recruits and assigns teachers. This year, it created a Milwaukee Teaching Fellows program that trained 40 people to teach in subject areas where MPS has had trouble filling jobs.

In addition, the New Teacher Center, an organization based at the University of California-Santa Clara, has begun working with new teachers in MPS, providing mentoring to make the transition from college training to classrooms more successful.

Solutions seen

Kramer told the audience that teachers in the Teach for America program have discovered that "this is a solvable problem" -- that they can have a positive impact in closing the gaps affecting low- income and minority students.

All of those involved agree that getting better teachers and principals is central to getting better results.

"Teachers matter a lot in the outcomes for students," Daly said. While some people think it is nearly hopeless to do anything about urban education problems, he said, research has shown that giving a child a high-quality teacher for several years in a row "changes the trajectory of a child's life."

Schnur said, "One key, consistent factor we've seen in every school that succeeds is an outstanding principal." Four people trained by New Teachers for New Schools are leading MPS schools this fall, and a group of about 15 has begun training aimed at placing them in charge of schools next fall.

MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos said, "Anything we can do to increase the diversity (of backgrounds) of our staff and bring talented people to work with our children is a good idea."

The teachers union is taking a neutral position on Teach for America's expansion into the area, according to Andrekopoulos. Milwaukee Teachers Education Association officials did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Some pieces of the picture still have to come together before Teach for America commits fully to Milwaukee. But the organization's board gave preliminary approval to the concept recently, and there appears to be major progress on other fronts, including fund raising and getting approval from the School Board.

A Peace Corps approach

Teach for America started 18 years ago as a result of a college paper written by founder Wendy Kopp. Its goal was largely to get college graduates to make two-year commitments to working on urban education problems the way the Peace Corps gets people involved in dealing with needs elsewhere in the world.

At some top universities, as many as 10% of seniors apply to Teach for America. The organization says it is highly selective in choosing whom to train as teachers. It provides a summer of training, along with continuing training in association with local higher education institutions.

James Rahn, president of the Kern Foundation, said in a statement, "Teach for America will bring an enthusiastic corps of young teachers to Milwaukee, infusing our schools with a new spirit and fresh perspectives."

Kramer said, "We're looking for places where we can be a meaningful part of closing the achievement gap, and Milwaukee seemed like such a place."

Teach for America is looking at five places for expansion -- Milwaukee, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville and Dallas.

Teach for America leaders are planning to put 30 teachers in MPS classrooms by next fall and 30 more by September 2010, for a total of 60 in that school year. They hope to continue the program at least that level in future years.

Kramer said that $2.8 million will be needed to pay for the program in Milwaukee over the next three years. That does not include the salaries of the teachers, who would be paid as MPS employees.

Teach for America hopes the School Board will provide $450,000 over that period. If the board agrees to do that at meetings this month, about half the money for the effort would be covered by MPS and the Kern gift. The rest will need to be raised in roughly the next month so that the group knows whether it can offer Milwaukee as a destination for applicants before a deadline in October, Kramer said.

This would be Teach for America's first effort in Wisconsin, although the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been an active source for participants. Steve Mancini, a spokesman for Teach for America, said 250 UW-Madison students applied and 55 were accepted into Teach for America this year. In addition, 11 Marquette University graduates are beginning work this fall.

A major criticism of Teach for America has been that teachers commit to working for only two years. But leaders of the organization say that one-third of the participants stay on as teachers longer than that, and another third stay involved in education in other ways, such as becoming administrators of schools.

They also point to research that students in classrooms of Teach for America teachers make more progress on average than those in other classrooms taught by new teachers.

High teacher turnover has plagued MPS, like many large urban districts. On average, 13% to 15% of teachers leave during their first year and about 40% have left by their fifth year, according to MPS officials.

Proponents of alternative programs for recruiting teachers other than conventional education schools argue that programs like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project will force the district to examine how it can strengthen its own efforts to recruit and retain talent.

"It challenges the MPS system to look at its (human resources) practices," said Bill Jenkins, co-chair of the Greater Milwaukee Committee's education committee. "All people need to be hired based on their abilities, not on their relationships."

Tackles the cultural gap

The program's pre-service boot camp in Milwaukee would prepare recruits to work with urban students who, in many cases, come from impoverished families. School Board member Jennifer Morales said traditional teacher education programs often gloss over differences between Milwaukee students and the largely white and middle-class adults who set out to work with them.

"Any program that faces that cultural gap head-on, as a given, is going to be a very powerful tool for us in developing a staff," Morales said. "We throw teachers into a situation where we don't acknowledge that that these differences exist.

"I really can't see any better investment for our money than teachers."

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