Wednesday, July 8, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The Clark County School District’s decision to partner with Teach for America in 2004 has arguably been one of its more successful experiments.
But instead of increasing the number of new graduates recruited from the nation’s top colleges and universities to work as teachers in at-risk classrooms, the district is scaling back its expansion.
For the 2009-10 academic year, the district plans to hire 38 TFA members, down from 48 last year. (Another 10 TFA teachers will be in preschool classrooms, their salaries paid by Acelero Clark County, a local nonprofit organization that administers the federal Head Start program.)
The recruits are hired by the School District and draw the same salary as other teachers, but Teach for America conducts and pays for their recruiting, five weeks of training and continued professional development throughout their two-year commitment.
The School District contributes $2,500 per teacher toward those costs. That works out to about $215,000 for the 2009-10 academic year, at a time when making do with less has become the district’s unofficial motto.
Cost isn’t the only reason the district is reducing the number of TFA teachers it hires. With the district’s enrollment at a near standstill — last year’s growth was pegged at less than 1 percent — district administrators weren’t sure how many new teachers they would need.
“We needed to make sure the talent we can bring was talent the district had the capacity to hire,” said Allison Serafin, executive director of TFA’s Las Vegas Valley program. “We didn’t want to bring in anyone the district didn’t realistically expect to place.”
Even though program participants agree to stay for two years, nationally about 60 percent remain in education beyond that time period. Clark County’s corps has one of the nation’s best retention rates, at about 70 percent.
The district has yet to evaluate the effect of the program on academic achievement.
A recent study evaluating five years of test scores in North Carolina found students of TFA teachers outperformed their peers in “regular” classrooms. TFA’s in-house evaluations show Clark County students taught by program participants make strong gains, progress that is even more significant given most of their students start the year scoring well below grade level.
Many principals sing the praises of their TFA hires, calling them smart, dedicated and willing to volunteer for extra duties.
At Watson Elementary, Principal Jennifer Newton said the three TFA members assigned to the campus — Rebecca Brown, Chris Estrella and Carl Farringon — are valued members of the staff. The end-of-year standardized test scores for Estrella’s fifth graders and Brown’s fourth graders were among the highest in the school for their grade levels, Newton said.
“They are here early, they stay late and they are very good at building relationships with the kids,” Newton said. “Each of them could have been doing something different, but this is clearly where they felt they needed to be.”
Estrella told the Sun he can’t wait for school to start again and get back to the “brilliant, incredible” students at Watson. His classes made impressive gains, but Estrella said he knows he can do a better job this school year.
“I’ve learned so much,” Estrella said, crediting TFA’s training and the professional development provided by the district. “I know it’s going to be a fantastic year.”
That kind of drive and determination is often the hallmark of an effective teacher. And there are plenty of them in the district who arrive through routes other than TFA.
However, the program’s track record suggests there are ways to sweeten the recruiting odds, but given the ongoing budget woes and enrollment uncertainties, increasing TFA’s stake in the School District will have to wait.