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In addition to experiencing urban education first-hand, Philadelphia Teach for America corps members are getting the opportunity to learn from some of the most knowledgeable scholars in the field.

Five years after Penn’s Graduate School of Education began collaborating with TFA — a subsection of AmeriCorps — in an effort to certify and improve the experiences of new teachers, the program continues to expand.

When TFA established itself in Philadelphia in 2003, corps members went to a variety of different universities to obtain certifications. In an effort to keep each participant’s learning consistent, TFA and GSE made an agreement to combine resources in September 2005 as the single training program for TFA participants in the city.

Most education schools around the country took the stance that TFA was about hiring young, inexperienced teachers, according to the program’s creator, GSE Vice Dean Doug Lynch.

“Instead, we immediately knew it was our job to see if we could help,” he said. “We think it’s unbelievable that they’ve inspired so many smart, young people to be of service.”

Now every TFA corps member — excluding those who teach special education and early childhood education — takes courses at GSE. The members have a choice to get a master’s degree in addition to basic certification. About three-fourths of them choose to do so, according to Program Director Dina Portnoy.

“The program gets better, and gets more students every year,” said Mike Wang, executive director of TFA in the mid-Atlantic region.

Wang credits the improvement to GSE’s mentoring program and a close working relationship that exists among the heads of the programs.

“We work together to collaborate in content and structure in a way that best supports our core members,” he said.

Since the corps members have busy schedules, the GSE program allows them to take their courses one night a week and one weekend a month.

“Some of the support we provide is very concrete,” Portnoy said. “But we also feel that they’re deeply engaged in urban education, so we try to help them understand why urban education is the way it is today.”

Both Portnoy and Lynch said the learning process is very collaborative between corps students.

“They take their courses together, they work together, and they get a lot of support from TFA locally,” Portnoy said. “Most importantly, they provide a lot of support for each other.”

Though this is doctoral student Brandon Miller’s first year as a mentor for the TFA students, he already feels the sense of “community” mentioned by the program’s leaders.

“It’s very helpful working together — because everyone in the group has a different background,” he said.

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