New Teach For America Contract Not An Easy Sell

Feb 25, 2014

A new proposal by Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti that would bring more than 300 new Teach for America recruits into the district over the next three years has been met with some resistance.

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti
Credit Duval County Public Schools / YouTube

Vitti pitched the $600,000 a year contract to school board members last week. Under the new agreement, the district would employ 100 new TFA teachers annually to the district’s poorest schools over the next three years and provide support for up to 200 TFA members a year.

“The services within the contract support the first year incoming 100 and the 100 that are going into the second year,” he said.

Teach for America recruits college graduates who do not have education degrees and provides them with a five-week course in education in exchange for a two-year commitment to teach in low-income schools.

Duval County Public Schools has been recruiting teachers from TFA yearly since 2008. It currently employs just over 200 TFA members.

But up until now, money was provided to the district through federal Race to the Top grants and private funding. Next year, the federal grant program expires. Under Vitti’s proposal beginning next year, the district would pay 20 percent of the new contract, and the rest would come through private funding.

The new recruits would be concentrated within 36 of the district’s Title I schools, specifically in areas of math and science, fields where skilled instruction lacks most.

But the $1.8 million plan was met with questions and concern from several school board members during their workshop last Tuesday, including school board chairwoman Becki Couch.

“Let’s say that some candidates appear to be better than TFA. How does that impact our contract when we say we’re going to hire a certain number of candidates from TFA?,” Couch questioned.

Vitti responded that both TFA and non-TFA candidates are given equal consideration. However, he later said that the district would be under contract to place the 100 TFA teachers.

“Obviously, through the contract we guarantee or commit to placing 100 teachers but even nationally, larger school districts will make a commitment to placing a certain number and if there aren’t enough positions then those teachers are not given those positions,” he said. “It hasn’t happened in Jacksonville because we’ve always had a need to fill those hard-to-staff classrooms.”

District 4 School Board Member Paula Wright was among the proposal’s critics, noting TFA's high rate of turnover. Wright said she planned to request to defer the plan at the school board's next meeting in March.

“I think we need to look at how we utilize our dollars, and if more of our dollars could be spent for professional development for those people who’ve declared they really want to be teachers. They’re going to be around,” she said.
    
According to TFA’s latest data, about 33 percent of those teachers who completed their two-year commitment with the program in 2013, returned to the district to teach a third year. That number does not reflect those who left prior to completing their two-year commitment or those who stayed in the district to work in education-related fields outside the classroom.

But teacher attrition in the district is not unique to the TFA program, Jacksonville Public Education Fund President Trey Csar pointed out. Last Spring, the non-profit released a study that found nearly half of the district’s new teachers left within their first five years.

While TFA said its regional numbers were not immediately available, a study by researchers at Harvard and the University of Connecticut reported that nationally about 28 percent of TFA recruits were still teaching by their fifth year.

“We struggle with teacher retention in Duval County for all teachers, Teach for America and non-Teach for America teachers, alike,” said Csar, who is a TFA alumnus. “I think, in general, one of the things that our organization has really been pushing the district on is how can you retain your best teachers?”

In addition to the TFA program, the district has launched several other initiatives to recruit and retain teachers in its toughest schools including the Jacksonville Urban Teacher Residency Program, which offers certification, a stipend and Master’s degree in exchange for a three-year commitment to teaching STEM-related courses.  
    
The initiatives, including TFA, are funded, in part, by Quality in Education for All, a large pool of private dollars provided through JPEF. The amount of money from the pool that will go towards next year’s proposed  TFA contract remains undisclosed at this point, Csar said.

When questioned about concerns over the money the district plans to invest into TFA, Vitti noted that Duval County already invests about $350,000 a year on direct support for new teachers not in TFA and millions on reading and math coaches for first and second year teachers not in the program.

“I don’t think it’s a question of cost,” he said. “I think it should go back to the conversation of human capital—one of many human capital strategies for hard to staff schools.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.