Teach for America Trains 500 New Teachers in Phoenix, Places 125 in Area Schools

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Teach for America, the non-profit organization that trains volunteers to teach in public schools, will launch 125 newly-trained teachers into Valley schools beginning as soon as this month. This new batch of teachers will bring the total number of local volunteers in the two-year program up to 250.

For some, the Peace Corps-esque program is a lifesaver for public schools. Others see it as a crash course in one of the most important professions there is -- and a risky proposition that places potentially ill-prepared young people in tough teaching jobs.

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This summer, Phoenix served as one of nine hubs for the program's five-week volunteer training, known as Institute. Phoenix's Institute trained nearly 500 new teachers, says Sharise Darby, a communications director with Teach for America. Besides the teachers who will be staying in Phoenix, those who trained here will be heading to New Mexico, South Dakota, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Ohio, Darby says.

Teach for America recruits competitive college graduates and career-changing professionals to teach in schools in low-income communities. The program has been placing teachers in area schools since 1994, says Lindsay Wheeler DeFrancisco, Executive Director of Phoenix's programming. Over 700 alumni of the program still live and work in the Phoenix area, she says.

Teach for America's overarching mission is to remedy the gap in educational achievement between students in low-income schools and those elsewhere. The program asks its volunteers to commit to at least two years of teaching and hopes that they will remain involved in public education afterward.

The incoming group of Phoenix volunteers is the most diverse Teach for America has seen in Phoenix, Wheeler DeFrancisco says. Over 40 percent of the new teachers come from low-income backgrounds themselves, and almost 40 percent identify as people of color, she says.

During Institute, the 500 trainees lived at ASU and taught in 14 different Phoenix schools. "Having Institute here is a huge benefit to our community," says Wheeler DeFrancisco. "It allows us to support the needs of students during the summer." Some of the participating students were in mandated remedial courses, while others volunteered to take part in summer programming, she says.

Joshua Jovanelly, 25, is a Los Angeles native and one of the incoming volunteers. In his final year as a journalism major at USC, he applied to Teach for America, but opted instead to take a job as a newspaper reporter in the Gila River Indian Community, a reservation on the south side of Phoenix.

But he eventually decided to look at Teach for America again. "I think what really made me reapply was the fact that I had spent these two years in an underserved community," he says. "Through my work writing, I confronted a lot of the problems and obstacles that these underserved communities face, and I really thought that education could be the best vehicle to solving them. I felt my impact could be greater in the classroom."

Jovanelly trained this summer at Aqua Fria High School in Avondale, where he will be teaching algebra and geometry to ninth and 10th grade students beginning August 4.

Jovanelly describes grueling days at Institute--waking up at 5 a.m., catching the bus to his school, several hours of lesson planning and teaching in the morning, training sessions all afternoon, a quick dinner, and then several more hours of lesson planning before bed.

But Andrew Morrill, the President of the Arizona Education Association (AEA), the state's teachers' union, is still concerned about just how prepared Teach for America volunteers are for the classroom. His group believes teachers must show mastery in three key areas before being qualified to teach.

First, he says, teachers should prove mastery over the content they teach, which he feels most Teach for America teachers possess.

Second, teachers should have an understanding of pedagogy--"the science by which we take that content knowledge and transfer it to developing adolescents," he says--meaning everything from lesson planning to classroom management to writing fair assessments to ensuring that kids at different levels are having their needs met. Morrill is concerned that Teach for America's Institute is too short--"a sort of crash course," he says--to give volunteers a full grasp on pedagogy before they are responsible for a classroom full of students.

The third prong of success, as Morrill and his group see it, is field experience, in a classroom, under the direct supervision of another teacher. The Teach for America program offers ongoing coaching and support for its volunteers, but there is no student teaching component. "We don't consider that sufficient preparation," Morrill says, emphasizing the invaluable lessons he learned as a student teacher prior to his 17 years in the classroom.

Wheeler DeFrancisco emphasizes that the program's training doesn't end at Institute. The vast majority of Phoenix volunteers, including Jovanelly, attend ASU's master's program in education, she says, and those who aren't enrolled there must be working toward their teacher certification elsewhere.

Jovanelly acknowledges that Institute was brief but feels positive about his level of preparation. "I feel as ready as someone could be after only five weeks of training," he says. "I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to say I learned everything I need to learn. It was a learning experience every day. The Institute staff I had, the level of feedback I was getting on a consistent basis, the support from other teachers--I feel I'm in the right frame of mind to be successful."

Wheeler DeFrancisco sees the Phoenix community as incredibly supportive of Teach for America and volunteers like Jovanelly. In fact, the demand for volunteers teachers in the Valley is too large for the program to meet, she says.

Morrill, too, is quick to highlight the strengths of the program. It attracts very strong candidates from good schools into the profession, he says, and "placing high entry level standards on who can teach is very important. The fact is that the members of the AEA want more than anything a qualified, committed, caring teacher in every classroom in every school," he says. And he acknowledges that many Teach for America teachers are exactly that.

"The energy and the attitude that we can bring to the table can overcome what we might lack in experience and training," Jovanelly says.

Morrill applauds Teach for America's use of ongoing professional development, the ways it encourages teachers to use data on their students' learning to shape instruction, and that it asks volunteers to complete a full certification program. He hopes that many of them will stay beyond their two-year commitment. And he emphasizes that no matter what, it's important to remember that these volunteers are teachers, indistinct in the classroom from more traditionally trained teachers. He is not interested in animosity between traditional teachers and Teach for America volunteers, he says, but would rather "build a bridge based on solid teaching practices."

"TFA gets people started on a very creative, possibly promising pathway," Morrill says. "And my hope is that they love the profession, love teaching, feel well-supported and want to stay. Because that's what their students need. They come in with a lot of promise and potential. We hope they realize that potential."

Volunteers will begin teaching full-time as soon as this week.

Editor's Note: New Times fellow Ashley Cusick participated in Teach for America in 2005.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ashley Cusick.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX.

Follow Ashley Cusick on Twitter at @AshleyBCusick.

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