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December 18, 2014

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School Board votes to hire 150 more Teach for America teachers

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Mona Shield Payne

Clark County School District Trustee Deanna Wright asks questions of eighth-grade students Nehrun Baskin and Antonio Ocampo, right, while teaching about the Holocaust in English Literature class during Teach For America Week at Dell H. Robison Middle School in Las Vegas Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

After more than an hour of contentious debate, the Clark County School Board unanimously approved a $300,000 contract on Thursday to hire 150 additional Teach for America teachers next school year.

The Clark County School District has partnered with Teach for America since the 2004-05 school year. Teach for America is a national nonprofit organization that recruits recent graduates from top colleges to teach in at-risk, high-need schools for at least two years.

Currently, the Las Vegas chapter of Teach for America has 150 Teach for America corps members who teach in the district and in non-district charter schools and Head Start preschool programs. The majority of TFA teachers will be assigned to high-need positions in math and science in one- and two-star ranked schools, as well as schools receiving federal money for low-income students.

Next year, the School District will add 150 new TFA teachers at a cost of $2,000 per teacher for recruitment and professional development. That represents about 10 percent of what TFA puts into recruiting and training its teachers. Corps members’ training includes a five-week summer institute and yearlong professional development, including some Saturday preparation.

At Thursday night’s School Board meeting, speakers argued for and against the controversial and well-heeled nonprofit organization. While some corps members have become successful career teachers and launched innovative education programs, others have left to pursue other careers, including political offices influencing education policy.

About half of the Teach for America teachers stay for a third year in Clark County, according to the School District. Nationally, two-thirds of Teach for America alumni stay in education long-term, according to the nonprofit.

Critics of TFA argue the organization hasn’t done enough to encourage career teachers.

“Rather than supporting this agreement, I say you support teachers who intend to stay,” said Bill Hanlon, former School District administrator and state school board member.

Teachers union members also criticized the School District for placing first-year teachers into at-risk schools.

“I think there’s a lot of experimentation that goes on when you’re a first or second-year teacher,” Clark County kindergarten teacher Angie Sullivan said. “You don’t become highly qualified without experience and practice. I’m worried about this program and the kids.”

Other teachers union members questioned whether the $300,000 used to recruit and train TFA teachers could be better spent.

“We have a hurting, starving budget here in CCSD,” said Lisa Muntean, a Clark County teacher and parent. “We need that money.”

However, proponents of TFA argued the program delivers a high return on investment. For every $1 it receives from the School District, TFA raises $9 in private funding to train its teachers.

Corps members, like Ben Sarkowe and Erica Mosca, have stayed in the district and developed innovative before and after-school programs and nonprofit leadership academies to help at-risk students. Many corps members, who come from diverse backgrounds, called education the defining civil rights issue of the generation, and felt a calling to join a movement to improve the lot of low-income students across the country.

Many school principals and administrators said they supported the TFA program. They viewed TFA corps members as eager and energetic in their efforts to better Las Vegas schools.

“They represent, I think, a great idea of what new teachers should be and it’s exciting to have candidates like that in our School District,” said Stephen Augsburger, president of the district’s school administrators union.

Business and political leaders from Glenn Christenson, co-chairman of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance’s education committee, and former first lady of Nevada Sandy Miller, also spoke in favor of Teach for America. They pointed to a recent study, which found that TFA math teachers produce an additional 2.6 months of learning compared to teachers from other educator preparation programs.

“TFA teachers are a great example for our students,” Christenson said. “They are an example of what can be possible with a good education.”

Some School Board members took issue with TFA, asking why regular Clark County teachers aren’t getting similar professional development like TFA teachers. Others seemed wary of the growing political and financial power of the 24-year-old organization.

“I’m not a recruiting ground for corporate America,” School Board member Chris Garvey said. “I’m here for our children.”

In the end, despite some reservations, the School Board unanimously approved the contract, calling it a good investment for Clark County children and families.

“We don’t have a lot of skin to give,” School Board member Deanna Wright said. “But we’re willing to give a little because we get so much back.”

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