Teach For America: Coming to Your Child’s School

Board of Ed

There is an idea in this town that if it isn’t happening at my school, I don’t need to worry about it.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One might be that people are simply too busy to keep up with more than one school. As a parent who has children at two different elementary schools, I really understand this one. Even though the boy and the girl are a mere 19 months apart in age, they’re in separate schools and have been since they started thanks to the decision of the central office to move special needs kids out of their home schools and consolidate them in just a few schools in the system. One school has enough politics, programs, and problems of its own. There just isn’t time to worry about the other schools in the system.

Another reason is that life itself tends to intervene enough. Not only is one school enough, usually, one school is simply too much. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything that needs to get done. Work, kids activities, health question, car trouble, cleaning the house, church commitments and occasionally sleeping later than 6am, all take priority over the politics of the school system, especially when my kid’s school isn’t affected.

I’m hopeful that these are the primary reasons why when some bad decision doesn’t directly affect us, we find it easy and frankly justifiable to ignore what’s happening with other schools and other demographics.

If it doesn’t affect my kids, I simply don’t have time to worry about it.

I’m hopeful that’s it. I’m hopeful that it isn’t a deeper, more troubling reason like maybe “those” schools don’t deserve more resources, better buildings or good teachers. I’m hopeful that isn’t the case.

In our recent questions, comments and debates about Teach For America, I’ve occasionally sensed from people the attitude that since TFA isn’t coming to my kids’ schools, it’s not worth being concerned over.

Or as one commentator stated, “Those schools are failing. Anything is better than what they have now.” Beggars can’t be choosers, you know. So, why worry about TFAers?

The best answer is: Because it’s the right thing to do. If my children deserve teachers who are properly trained and committed to the goal of educating our children, then all children deserve similar teachers. If my children deserve teachers who are experienced, and who work everyday to apply that experience to the craft of education, then all children deserve such teachers.

A secondary answer, a more pragmatic answer is: If the district believes it’s okay to put inexperienced, untrained, uncertified “teachers” (who don’t want to be teachers) in one classroom, it can and will place them in every classroom.

But that won’t happen, right? The TFAers are going to schools that are failing, right? They, surely, won’t be placed in my child’s school.


The best answer that I can give you is that despite nearly a month of asking for details on where the TFAers will be placed, I still haven’t been able to get a straight answer.

No Straight Answers

Straight answers: Why are they so difficult to come by from Huntsville City Schools?

You should know that I am arguing from an absence of evidence in this case. Most of my posts are not based upon my opinions or assessments. I typically stick with exactly what a person says. Arguing from a lack of evidence is fraught with issues, but sometimes a lack of evidence is also telling. I believe that it is in this case as well.

I am convinced that Dr. Wardynski is planning to hire significantly more TFAers in August 2012 than the 30-40 he has previously indicated, and I believe that he is planning to place TFAers at schools all over the district.

Over the past month, I have been asking Dr. Robinson for details concerning the placement plan for the TFAers.

On February 9, 2012, I wrote Dr. Robinson to ask which schools would be receiving the TFA recruits in the district. On the 10th, Dr. Robinson responded:

A placement plan for TFA teachers will not be created until we know which teachers at which schools are retiring. That could be as late a June.

This is as close to a direct answer as I was able to receive, but as I told Dr. Robinson, this answer did not satisfy me. I wrote back to ask:

I am sure that someone in the central office has at least an idea where they are planning to place the TFA recruits starting in August, otherwise it would have been foolish to enter into a contract in November of 2011 to hire at least 30 TFAers [no later than] 14 days before the start of school. This is particularly true since we will have to pay $40 a day for those recruits that do not have positions on the first day of class.

Let me see if I can rephrase my question in such a way that you might be able to provide me with at least the beginnings of an answer.

Which of the schools in the district will not, regardless of retirements or non-renewal status, be receiving these TFA recruits? We can get to the actual numbers and placements later in the process. For now, I’ll be satisfied knowing where they won’t be placed.

Since she wasn’t willing to say how many and where those recruits would be placed, even though we’re going to have to pay at least 30 of them regardless of whether we have a job for them or not, I decided to ask where the TFAers will not be placed. Surely this should be a simple question to answer, right? After all, nearly every public discussion of the TFA contract has implied that these recruits are only placed at schools where the students are at high risk. In other words, TFA typically only serves schools where 70% or more of the school’s population are receiving free or reduced lunch.

Poverty and School Performance

Poverty, in other words, is one of the most accurate indicators we have for the potential success of a student. The lower the family income, the higher the risk for students to underperform in schools. If you want to get into the scientific evidence supporting this thesis, take a look at “Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” by Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg. You may see an abstract here.

As I said, TFAers are typically placed at schools with 70% or more of the school’s population receives free or reduced lunch. The contract itself requires this.

Or, as we’ll see in a moment, it implies that this will be the standard.

In response to my follow up question, Dr. Robinson told me later in the day on February 10th:

I have asked the staff to provide the information you requested.

I expected that she would let me know that the TFAers will be placed at our Title I schools here in Huntsville. After all, the Title I schools are Title I schools because of the percentage of students they have receiving a free or reduced lunch. This is why Dr. Wardynski was pushing for students to complete the forms required for the Free or Reduced Lunch at the beginning of the school year. Here’s a listing of the Huntsville City Schools Title I schools as of August 15, 2011.

  • Butler High
  • Chapman Middle
  • Davis Hills Middle
  • Ed White Middle
  • Highlands Elementary
  • Lakewood Elementary
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary
  • McDonnell Elementary
  • Montview Elementary
  • Morris Elementary
  • Ridgecrest Elementary
  • Rolling Hills Elementary
  • University Place Elementary
  • West Mastin Lake Elementary
  • Westlawn Middle

The reason that I started asking about the placement of the TFAers was that there is only one high school on this list. As you’ll recall, Dr. Robinson stated that our TFAers will be primarily placed at secondary schools rather than elementary schools.

The problem is that there just aren’t that many secondary schools on the list.

I asked Dr. Robinson about this when I noticed that Dr. Wardynski was regularly talking about placing TFAers at elementary, middle and high schools. He said as much in his interview with Rocket City Mom on January 31st. When I asked Dr. Robinson about this on February 2nd, she told me that it had in fact “always been the plan” to place TFAers at both elementary and secondary schools.

Still No Answer

About two weeks later, I followed up with Dr. Robinson asking if the “staff” had responded to her request for a listing of schools where the TFAers will not be placed.

She responded on February 22nd:

Any determination about which schools will and will not receive TFA teachers will be made at a later date.

As I stated, the most informative response she gave me was the very first one, we won’t “know” until late June.

I wrote her back quoting the TFA contract which states on page two paragraph I.A.v.:

School District will restrict hiring of each such Teacher to schools where at least 70% of attending students are eligible for free or reduced lunch unless mutually agreed upon by School District and Teach For America.

And so I asked:

The hesitancy on the part of the school district to inform the public which schools will or will not be receiving TFAers leads me to believe that the school district and Teach For America have arrived at a mutual agreement to allow TFAers to be placed at schools where less than 70% of the attending students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Is this the case?

Has the district and TFA arrived at an agreement to place TFAers at schools where less that 70% of the student population receives a free or reduced lunch? If so, when will this agreement be made public?

What is the new cut-off percentage being employed, and what schools meet that new requirement? If not, why is it so difficult to provide me with a listing of schools that have a percentage of free and reduced lunch that is below 70%?

If they’ve not come up with a new standard by which they will decide where TFAers will be placed, why is it so difficult to give me a straight answer about where they will or won’t be placed?

I’m convinced that Dr. Wardynski and the Board are planning to place TFAers at schools with a standard significantly below 70% free and reduced lunch.

Dr. Robinson’s response did nothing to change my mind. On February 22nd, she wrote back:

We are still determining which schools qualify for TFA teachers.

Unless their standard of 70% free and reduced lunch has changed, why would they need to be “still determining which schools qualify?

Why is the district unable to communicate the criteria by which they will decide which schools will receive and which schools will not receive the TFA recruits?

Can You Think of a Reason?

The only reason I can think of is that the district is planning to use TFAers are significantly higher levels than the contract calls for (30 or more) and significantly higher than the number that Dr. Wardynski shared with Dr. Robinson via email when I asked about the cost of the contract (40).

Dr. Robinson’s hesitancy to provide me with a simple and direct answer combined with Dr. Wardynski regular claims that, “Many people who think they were going to be tenured will not,” leads me to one and only one conclusion: Dr. Wardynski is planning to hire significantly more TFAers than he has revealed publicly.

The contract is loaded with clues to this effect.

First, there is not an upper limit to the number of TFA recruits hired by our system (30 or more, 40 or more).

Second, the contract allows for both parties to change the placement rule of at least 70% or more free and reduced lunch by mutual consent. Since TFA Alabama would love to place record numbers of recruits in Huntsville, and since Dr. Wardynski is constantly raising the number and cheerleading for TFA, what, other than public opinion, is to stop both parties from raising the numbers?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

Sometimes we speak loudest, Dr. Robinson, by saying nothing at all. Right now, the district’s silence is screaming that they’re planning to hire far more than 30 or 40 TFAers. The district’s silence is screaming that they’re planning to place these recruits at all of the schools in the district.

So What’s A Parent To Do?

Ask Questions.

As you can see, my questions often go unanswered. If you think these are valid questions, ask them yourself. Perhaps you will receive a different answer than I have received.

When your child is assigned a classroom teacher for the fall, request that the school provide you with a completely and detailed accounting of that teacher’s training. You may do this by filing out a “Parent’s Right-To-Know” request. This form will advise you concerning your teacher’s and paraprofessional’s credentials.

If your children are being taught by a teacher teaching under a “provisional” or “emergency” status, if his or her undergraduate degree is in something other than Education, and he or she doesn’t have a master’s degree in Education, I would advise you to request that your child be transferred out of that teacher’s classroom.

All of our children deserve the best opportunity to succeed in their education. I, for one, do not want my children taught by a “teacher” who doesn’t want to be a teacher. TFA “teachers” don’t want to be teachers. We should make it easy for them to do something else.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


    1. That’s a good question that I don’t know the answer to yet. I’ll check on it to find out.

      1. You can check a teacher’s credentials at the state departments website. It is public information.

        1. If the school refuses to supply that information, you may feel free to contact me at jason.obrien@uah.edu. I will gladly work with you to contact the “Family Law Compliance Office” in Washington, D.C. Under FERPA laws, parents have the right to know the qualifications of their child’s teachers.

          I am strongly considering choosing a Saturday at Big Spring Park in which we bring banners and solicit volunteers to raise awareness of this issue. If we get enough people, I imagine that the Times might come down and give us some publicity.

          1. Thanks for the offer, Jason. I’ll certainly support a rally about the issues surrounding TFA.

          2. I would support a rally too. I wouldn’t count on the local media covering the rally because they are part of the problem.

        2. Well since this grievance isn’t about the board or the superintendent, it might at least receive a response. But then again . . .

  1. Title should have been-Teach For America: Coming to a poor/black/brown school near you. Setting them up for failure. But’s that’s OK, they don’t deserve, I mean want (sanrk) equal access to a quality education (snark) due to life’s unfairness (snark).

    Note, the last school board meeting, the all black Chapman Middle School Boys Basketball team was recognized for athletics. The all white Grissom High School German Class and National Merit Scholars were recognized for academics. Never mind the fact it’s against the law to have all black/white schools, the Grissom students were taught by certified educators, not TFA.

    It is my understanding currentHCS TFA teachers don’t know what they heck they are doing, and the Superintendent has prevented complete disclosure regarding their true performance. The evaluating teachers are resentful.

    TFA was created for school systems with teacher shortages, NOT for firing and replacing highly qualified teachers. TFA teachers have only 6 weeks of training and 30 hours of practicum. If they were so great, they wouldn’t be in poor/black/brown schools.

    Schools in Georgia are suffering the aftermath of TFA because they can’t handle the job and have high attrition rates. They end up leaving the system long before their required time.

    What can we do? Read If football coaches used Teach for America Logic

    Print it and Pass it on.

  2. The issue I have with this whole set up is it is ignoring the problem, and blaming the last people actively working to help these kids succeed.

    The problem isn’t poor teachers, it’s unprepared and unmotivated students. Why they are unprepared and unmotivated varies wildly by child… uneducated parents, social and economic disadvantages, lack of mentors, lack of role models, lack of fathers/mothers/family support, and the list goes on. All too often we want to lump these problems into the overarching label of “Poor” but that’s not the only problem these children face.

    Then we want to compare the results of schools filled with these unprepared and unmotivated children with there prepared and motivated counterparts. And that’s not fair to either set of children.

    You can easily see the difference if you look at kindergarten or first grade standardized test scores. Now you can’t see it if all you look at is the end of year benchmarks. If that’s all you look at, what you see is “underperforming schools” are doing far worse than “High performing schools.” But that’s just not true.

    Look at the start of year benchmarking, then compare that to the end of year benchmarking. A typical kindergarten student at a “high performing school” may already be at the end of year benchmark the day they walk into class. Both my son and my daughter were above the end of year benchmark on their first day of class. Why? Because, by the grace of God, my kids like to read just as much as their Daddy. Before they could read, they loved being read too. And I had the time, ability and desire to read to them.

    Now compare that to the “underperforming schools” and you’ll see something different. You’ll see kids that score so low the benchmarks can’t even register them. They are so far off the chart that the benchmark is essentially set at zero. Then look at their end of year benchmark. Suddenly you see that teachers at “Underperforming schools” are taking the vast majority of their students and raising them from a zero (or lower) and turning them into benchmarking or near benchmarking students.

    Any teacher will tell you it is far easier to build on an existing concept than to introduce a new one. I’m not suggesting that teachers at the schools where the kids are already at benchmark don’t work hard… I know for a fact that they do. I’m suggesting that perhaps the true “high performing” schools in our district aren’t the ones with the best standardized test and instead are the ones that take kids so far behind as to be below a zero on the benchmarks and brings them up to the benchmark level.

    And any administrator or politician that can’t see the truth of that is a hypocrite and a liar in my book.

  3. My instincts follow:

    Supt. is going to handpick certified teachers to transfer in to failing schools (very highly qualified and probably earning much more than the district wants to pay) for the 2012-2013 school year.

    When the HQ teachers realize he is commanding them to teach in schools they do not want to teach in, there will be resignations and probably more than a few.

    With the resignations will come a teacher shortage, thus all the TFA talk.

    Just thinking……

  4. This just in.

    Certain groups of teachers have been informed that CW has been visiting various colleges asking new graduates to come and apply for HCS jobs.

    Of course he’s created an artificial shortage now. A culture of fear, minimum pay, and constant threats of replacement by temporary teachers and it isn’t like he’s created the most friendly environment to apply too. If I was a new teacher, I sure wouldn’t apply to HCS for a job, not when most of the nearby systems pay more with less stress.

    So he is creating a situation that pure win win for him. He is forcing a shortage, but oh look! He already has a TFA contract in place to pick up the slack. And more money goes into the Broad coffers.

  5. “Of course he’s created an artificial shortage now. A culture of fear, minimum pay, and constant threats of replacement by temporary teachers and it isn’t like he’s created the most friendly environment to apply too. If I was a new teacher, I sure wouldn’t apply to HCS for a job, not when most of the nearby systems pay more with less stress.”

    Exactly. Yet they claim to be in working within the “Put Children First” act. It’s more like fire certified teachers act.

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