Due to recent budget cuts in the School District of Philadelphia, Teach for America is shifting its focus to charter schools.
Currently, only 21 out of 257 TFA corps members in the area are teaching in traditional public schools, with the rest teaching in charter schools — public institutions run independently by a board of trustees that can set its own curriculum. In only 15 years, charter schools have grown to serve a quarter of all Philadelphia students.
The district has been increasing its number of charter schools to reduce spending. In April, the school district announced a plan to close 64 public schools over five years. It also plans to have 40 percent of Philadelphia students attend charter schools by then.
As a result, the number of teachers hired each year, including TFA members, has steadily declined over a decade. In 2003 to 2004, the district hired 110 new TFA teachers, whereas it hired only eight this year.
TFA members were also affected by a round of layoffs in the summer of 2011, when over 1,000 other district teachers were dismissed, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
This affected nearly 90 TFA members working for the district at the time, though a handful were subsequently re-hired.
“TFA shared in what was a jarring time for the whole educational community in the Greater Philadelphia Region,” Tre Johnson, the program’s executive director in the Greater Philadelphia area, said in an email.
Working the charter school network
TFA is now looking toward charter schools to continue its work in Philadelphia.
Sean Healey, a 2010 College graduate who joined TFA immediately after graduating, said that around February or March of 2011, “a lot of first-year teachers in the district started getting pink slips,” informing them they were laid off for the school year.
Healey found out he was dismissed in mid-August.
With the help of TFA, he managed to quickly find a different school for the upcoming year.
“TFA reached out to charter partners on our behalf,” he said. “They did a pretty good job of beefing up those school partnerships and thinking outside the box.”
He added that TFA has strong ties in Philadelphia with charter school networks such as Mastery Charter Schools, KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools and Young Scholars Charter Schools.
KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, is a nationwide network founded by Dave Levin and 1991 College graduate Mike Feinberg, two former TFA members. Its Philadelphia branch, which runs four schools, is headed by Marc Mannella, another TFA alumnus.
Some TFA corps members enjoy the additional support often provided by such network-run charter schools during their first experience in an urban classroom.
Louis DiPaola, a TFA member currently teaching at Mann Elementary School, a Mastery Charter School, is followed by a coach “whose sole job is to teach and coach me and eight other teachers,” he said.
Some charter schools are also better equipped to deal with disadvantaged students. In the Charter High School for Architecture and Design, where he taught his second year, Healey was glad to find “guidance counselors who are on call and who are really invested in the students.”
DiPaola also appreciates the experimental aspect of the charter school movement. “They were able to break out of the molds that the public school system had set,” he said. TFA leaders are “humble … but they’re part of a greater movement.”
2012 College graduate Emma Ellman-Golan expected to be placed in a charter school when she applied to join TFA this fall.
There are pros and cons to working in both charter schools and district schools, she said. On the one hand, charter schools usually pay a lower salary and have a more complicated application process. On the other hand, charters are sometimes better resourced.
“When we go to work every day, our focus is on serving the children in front of us, and it’s not on the politics,” she said.
TFA can fulfill its purpose just as well in charter schools as in traditional public schools, according to Johnson. “Teach For America’s mission is to ensure that children in low-income communities receive a quality education — no matter what type of public school they attend,” he said in an email.
The district schools often present a different set of circumstances.
Rachael Cico, a 2011 College graduate who taught in a West Philadelphia public school through TFA, said in an email that her school did not have a nurse, “which is highly illegal.” “It was a mess,” she added.
2011 College graduate Samantha Wertheimer left the program after two months at James Alcorn Elementary, a district school, because she did not feel equipped to teach.
Wertheimer said she and the other teachers were required to leave the school no later than 4 p.m. every day because “there had been too many shootings.”
She said there was only one security guard surveying the whole school so teachers sometimes had to break up fights. “I did get punched in the jaw,” she said.
Wertheimer added that on top of teaching, she had to deal with the problems students faced at home. “I had kids come to school, cockroaches would crawl out of their backpacks.” She sometimes had to feed her students who came to school hungry.
“The school gave me so little support that I just couldn’t do it by myself,” she said.
Traditional public schools “have the highest need, but they don’t have the resources to facilitate having TFA corps members,” according to Wertheimer.
However, she added, “by only putting them into charter schools, TFA is sort of alienating themselves from the public sector.”
Critics say charter schools do not admit the same kinds of students as district schools. Helen Gym, who attended the College and Graduate School of Education in the ’90s, believes charter schools “are not meant for equity” due to their admissions system.
“They’re a lottery game system,” said Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education and a former Daily Pennsylvanian editor. “And for a lot of people a lottery isn’t a choice.”
English language learners are less represented in charter than in district schools, she added.
Though Gym does not oppose TFA as an education program, she believes the program may aggravate the already high teacher turnover in Philadelphia schools.
“When we talk about how to improve schools, one issue is an issue of stability and experience in the classroom,” she said.
Cico said hiring her “was a way for the district to skirt around” paying the regular teacher salary. She said she made about $10,000 less than the average starting salary for that position.
Though TFA teachers are normally employed directly by their districts or schools, Cico was hired by a special education nonprofit contracted by the district.
This article has been revised to accurately convey Helen Gym’s quote — stability, not ability, is an example of an issue in the classroom.