(Photography by Don Kadair: Michelle Gieg at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge)
When Michelle Gieg first started teaching, simply lining kids up and leading them from point A to point B was a challenge. Today, she knows children have to be told that they’re expected to face forward, keep their hands at their sides and their mouths shut, and pay attention to the person in front of them.
“As a first-year teacher, you just start walking,” she says. “Before you know it, there are kids bumping in to one another.”
The first time she tried it, a student’s mother approached her.
“She’s like, ‘You don’t look like you know what you’re doing,’” Gieg recalls with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I might not, actually.’”
Gieg wasn’t always planning to be a career educator. The Covington native studied journalism at LSU, and she joined Teach for America upon graduation in 2006 to learn about education from the inside before becoming a reporter.
Instead, Gieg became the founding principal of Democracy Prep Baton Rouge. The charter school opened this year in the former home of Prescott Middle, in the same neighborhood as the now-closed North Highlands Elementary where Gieg taught as a TFA corps member.
“It was really important to me to be as close as possible to where I taught,” she says. “There are four or five kids at this school who are siblings or cousins of kids that I taught.”
Teach for America is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Its stated goal is “to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” Put simply, TFA says it wants to help poor kids close the achievement gap.
It launched in 1990 with 384 corps members in six regions, including south Louisiana. In recent years, as many as 190 TFAers, who serve two-year stints in high-need schools and generally do not major in education, could be found teaching in Capital Region classrooms, and its alums increasingly are leading local schools and nonprofits and influencing education policy at the highest levels.
A little more than half of the faculty at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge are TFA alums, which is not an unusually high ratio for a charter school. About two-thirds of the students are from the immediate neighborhood, Gieg says, although some are bused in from as far away as Woman’s Hospital. Most are poor and black, and she says many have special needs.
As the name suggests, it’s a college prep school with a focus on citizenship. While it only serves kindergarten and sixth grade now, the current charter allows for K-8, and the hope is to add two grades each year and eventually a high school.
“Our motto is ‘Work hard, go to college, change the world,’” Gieg says.
A CHANCE TO MAKE HISTORY
Teach for America began as Wendy Kopp’s 1989 senior thesis at Princeton University. As she saw it, public schools, decades after desegregation, still were unable to make up for the long-term effects of poverty, racism and other social injustices.
Her idea to address the problem: recruit high-performing college grads regardless of major to teach in high-need urban and rural schools. In her 2011 book A Chance to Make History, Kopp argues that while experience is valuable, “there’s also a power in inexperience—that it can make a huge difference to channel the energy of young people, before they know what’s ‘impossible.’”
From the beginning, TFA benefited from philanthropic and corporate donations. According to various sources, early supporters included Mobil Oil, Union Carbide, Morgan Stanley, H. Ross Perot and the Echoing Green Foundation. Jennifer Eplett Reilly, the prominent Baton Rouge civic leader and wife of Lamar Advertising CEO Sean Reilly, is the former president of Echoing Green, public records show. Locally, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and its donor-advised funds have been involved from the earliest days, former South Louisiana chapter director Michael Tipton says.
Donna Saurage, of the Community Coffee Saurages, was an early local TFA supporter and later served on the South Louisiana chapter’s board. She recalls a breakfast meeting organized by Reilly with Kopp and several others.
“They were looking to set up a region here in Baton Rouge,” Saurage says. “Wendy [Kopp] really put out her vision of what this teacher corps could be, and it sounded like a great idea to support.”
So Baton Rouge was a TFA community from the beginning. But when Tipton, an LSU grad who taught with TFA in the South Bronx, returned home to direct the local chapter in 2007, there were only about 30 corps members in the region, he says.
By the time he announced last year that he was leaving TFA, there were about 175 members, and the number has been as high as 190. The growth was driven by “need and opportunity,” Tipton says.
The rise of the charter movement has been a boon to TFA, and vice versa. Under Tipton’s leadership, about half of corps members across greater Baton Rouge were in charter schools, he says. But Tipton also placed many teachers in traditional school districts, particularly East Feliciana, Ascension and Point Coupee parishes.
Tipton says TFA teachers do not compete with experienced teachers or graduates from traditional education programs. He says governing entities—be they district school boards, charter networks or standalone charter schools—reach out to TFA because they’re having trouble filling certain roles, or because they have, for example, 50 slots to fill and only 10 applicants.
If school or district leaders express interest in TFA, Tipton would sit down with them to ask why.
“If you’re hoping that our people will come in and solve all of your problems on day one, I hate to tell you, that is not reasonable anywhere,” he says he told them. “We have talented, smart, hard-working people that can be part of your team.” Corps members are interviewed for the jobs like anyone else would be, and the district or school makes the final decision.
TFA corps members serve for two years, and the organization’s many two-and-done teachers are criticized for creating instability at their schools. Tipton tried to encourage members not to bolt after their TFA commitment is up.
“I want you to stay in Louisiana, and I want you to stay in education,” he says he would say. “And I will work my butt off to make that true for you.”
While TFA encourages former corps members to continue teaching or working in the field of education in some capacity, it also opens doors for those that choose a different path. Some TFA alums that quit teaching remain in the communities where they taught, a benefit that should not be overlooked if we’re trying to attract the “best and brightest,” says former board member Virginia Noland.
“When they go into some other line of work,” she says, “they still bring to our community that passion for education and that belief that it can be done.”
The leadership of TFA alums extends well beyond holding top positions at local schools, particularly charter schools. John White, the state’s controversial education superintendent, was in TFA, as was Kira Orange Jones, who directs the Greater New Orleans TFA chapter and is a reliable vote for White on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
This is not an accident. TFA was always intended to be a force for change.
“I think the way to understand Teach for America is as a leadership development program,” Kopp said in a 2012 interview with Bloomberg Business. “We have a whole strategy around not only providing folks with the foundational experience during their two years with us, but also then accelerating their leadership in ways that is strategic for the broader education reform movement.”
While TFA does not take overt political stances, the self-identified “reform” movement of which it is a part tends to support charters, vouchers, Common Core, eroding teacher tenure and using student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools. A sister nonprofit, called Leadership for Educational Equity, helps TFA alums like Jones run for office and attain other prominent roles.
TFA shares a number of benefactors with the broader reform movement. To pick only one example of many, the Walton Foundation, started by Walmart’s founders, recently gave $50 million to TFA’s national organization, and members of the Walton family have made significant campaign contributions to the pro-John White, pro-Common Core faction of BESE.
Beth Sondel joined TFA in 2002 and taught sixth grade at Capitol Middle School in Baton Rouge. Today she is an assistant professor in the College of Education at North Carolina State University.
“From the start I felt unprepared in my position and conflicted about my relationship with TFA,” she writes in her 2013 dissertation. She feared that TFA’s intense focus on improving test scores put pressure on teachers to “teach towards the test” and exaggerate or inflate students’ results. She found the implication that undertrained recent college grads could “fix broken schools” arrogant and elitist.
Sondel associates TFA with market-based, corporate-backed reforms and the “no excuses” charter school movement, of which Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP—founded by TFA alumni—is perhaps the best known. Sondel is skeptical of claims about the improvement of public education in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and she notes that TFA corps members helped fill the breach after the mass layoffs of veteran teachers after the storm.
James Kirylo, a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southeastern Louisiana University, says young people who join TFA may have altruistic motives. But as TFA has grown, it has aligned itself with corporate “deformers” that promote “the marketization of education,” he says.
It’s a characterization TFA discounts. “We have a long history of working with innovative and effective charter school systems, but we do not prioritize any one mode of school governance,” says Teach for America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard in an emailed statement. “We believe school leaders need significant autonomy in order to exercise leadership, and we applaud efforts to support that leadership in charters and districts alike.”
Support for TFA is bipartisan and extends as high as Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary. Under Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education awarded TFA a $50 million grant in 2010.
But the reform (or deform) movement still has a tendency to divide education activists into rival camps, and those divisions often are laid bare in public debates at BESE or the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
“The best way to approach a lot of these situations would be to have both sides come to the table and work together,” says TFA alum Eva Kemp-Melder, state director of Democrats for Education Reform and unsuccessful candidate for the EBR school board in 2010. “But I think that there are special interests involved. Not everybody’s willing to do that.”
A DIVERSE CORPS
TFAers are frequently stereotyped as white, privileged Ivy League grads who take a five-week crash course to make up for the lack of an education degree, dabble in teaching poor black kids for two years to pad the resume, then head off to business or law school. The caricature is unfair, says current South Louisiana chapter Executive Director Laura Vinsant, and that perception is becoming more and more untrue.
“As we’ve grown, we have realized that the diversity of our corps matters,” she says.
According to TFA, the 4,100 members of the 2015 national class hail from more than 830 colleges and universities. Almost half identify as people of color, and more than a third are the first of their families to attend college. Of the 42,000-plus alumni, more than a quarter are still classroom teachers, and about 65% work in education in some capacity, TFA says.
The South Louisiana chapter, which currently covers Ascension, Avoyelles, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, St. Helena, Point Coupee and Iberville parishes, has 115 corps members, Vinsant says. For the 2015-16 school year, she says, about 37% of the chapter’s corps members are at charter schools; the rest were hired by TFA’s public district partners.
The chapter has a $3 million annual budget. While it gets money from public entities such as AmeriCorps, the state and school districts, “we currently raise at least $3 privately for each $1 invested publicly,” Vinsant says, although no single donor represents more than 5% of annual revenue.
Of the 1,000-plus TFAers who have served here over the past 25 years, 200 remain in the region. Most of the latter group remain classroom teachers, she says.
Less than 15% of TFA applicants are admitted in a given year. The application process includes an online assessment and a full day of interviews, including a sample teaching lesson.
The selection criteria is refined every year, Vinsant says. She says the best applicants have shown the ability to build relationships and overcome obstacles.
Each successful applicant spends five to seven weeks training at a TFA “institute” site, which for this region is Delta State University in West Cleveland, Miss. Trainees teach a summer school class while being coached by experienced teachers, with meetings, debriefings and lesson planning before and after the school day.
“The five weeks that a TFA corps member gets now is much more helpful than the five weeks that I got in 2002,” says TFA alum Kathryn Rice, school director at Baton Rouge College Preparatory Charter School. In her day, “a lot of it was just, figure it out, trial and error, network with teachers in your building, et cetera.”
Rice says TFA now uses data to help corps members improve and incorporates techniques taught by Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion. Something as simple as squaring one’s shoulders and standing still while giving important directives makes it more likely that 100% of the class will listen, she says.
But while those five weeks are intense, the development doesn’t stop there. About half of the chapter’s budget—and more than half of the 13-member staff—are dedicated to ongoing teacher observation and support, Vinsant says.
“We know you cannot create a great teacher in just five weeks,” she says.
‘JOYFUL ABOUT TEACHING’
Gieg does not employ current TFA corps members at Democracy Prep, but she says her school is attractive to TFA alumni in part because they took a nontraditional path to teaching and are perhaps more likely to believe that “different is good.” She says her staff gets excited about being able to implement creative solutions with minimal red tape.
“They want to work at a school where all the adults care about student success,” she says. “Everybody [here] is joyful about teaching.”
She realizes, of course, that quotes like that can infuriate teachers who took the traditional route, because it implies that they’re less likely to have the same passion. But that’s not what she means, she stresses.
“My mom is a career teacher,” Gieg says. “I’ve never met a teacher that doesn’t care about kids.”
Rice says Baton Rouge College Prep has only one TFA corps member, although about half of the teachers are TFA alums.
“I think compared to some of the other charters, we’re actually low [in the number of ex-TFAers],” she says. “We’re looking for people who are mission-aligned, who really believe in what’s possible for our kids, who want to do it the way that we want to do it.”
Rice says she also has “wildly successful” traditional teachers. But she says the “framing” and “focus” of education schools tends to differ from TFA. She says the LSU School of Education tends to place student teachers and form strong relationships with magnet and suburban schools, and “we are neither.” The LSU School of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
Democracy Prep and Baton Rouge College Prep were launched with help from a startup grant from New Schools for Baton Rouge, which works to attract established charter school operators. New Schools CEO Chris Meyer, a TFA alum, says a robust TFA presence in Baton Rouge helps attract charter operators, in part because it reflects the community’s commitment to education.
“TFA at this point is a Baton Rouge institution,” he says.
As previously mentioned, TFA South Louisiana says almost two-thirds of its current corps members are in traditional schools, not charters. The organization declined to provide a parish-by-parish breakdown, citing “the confidentiality of our negotiated contracts with our school and district partners.”
One of those traditional schools with a longstanding TFA relationship is Lowery Elementary in Donaldsonville. Principal Dawn Love counts four TFA alums and five corps members among her 33 teachers. She says 98% of her school’s students are black, and 96.5% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which is the most often-cited measure of school poverty.
“In a high-poverty, high-needs school, what we really need are people that are passionate about working in these types of schools,” Love says. “That’s kind of why TFA works so well for us.”
She says Lowery has been able to entice TFAers to stick around by helping them grow into leadership roles at the school. She says there is “definitely” potential for tension between traditional and TFA teachers, but says organizing her teachers into “professional learning communities” creates a team atmosphere so “we’re all in this together.”
“We are immersed in data all the time,” Love says. “When you have that posted, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve been teaching for 15 years or 15 minutes. Whoever is growing students the most, that’s who can share those experiences and help to guide others to do the same thing.”
Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol says her district’s agreement with TFA is adjusted yearly based on need and available supply of corps members. She brought in TFA because it is difficult to staff schools in Ascension’s “turnaround zone,” primarily in Donaldsonville, which is somewhat isolated from the rest of the parish by the Mississippi River. The district pays a fee of about $4,000 for each TFAer on top of their salaries.
“I think there’s a real value to having these young people from all across the country from very prestigious schools who come into our community and show our kids, ‘Hey, there’s a whole world out there,’” Pujol says.
Pujol likes having a mix of young, energetic teachers—even if they don’t stay past two years—and experienced veterans. She notes that Ascension is launching its own alternative certification program for teachers that is similar to TFA.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators teachers union, does not object to TFA as long as the corps is not displacing experienced teachers or those with more extensive preparation.
“Our philosophy is that schools and school districts should be a healthy mix of early-career, mid-career and late-career educators,” Meaux says.
TFA takes pride in its dedication to poor urban and rural schools that often have trouble finding enough qualified teachers. But Kirylo, the SLU education professor, says using a sort of Peace Corps to staff the schools that need outstanding teachers the most “is clearly an indictment on us all on how we view teaching and our lack of commitment to the professionalization of what it means to be a teacher.”
“So, why as a society are we fine, and even encourage, underprepared teachers in the more challenging—generally high-poverty schools—and won’t tolerate that in more affluent, privileged public schools?” Kirylo wonders.
Love notes that TFA teachers get additional coaching and support on top of what the district offers. She says that despite recruiting efforts, she likely would have a teacher shortage without TFA.
“At the end of the day,” Love says, “TFA just affords us the opportunity to put passionate people who are willing to go above and beyond in a high-needs school.”
TFA is preparing for its 25th Anniversary Summit in February amid a leadership shakeup, after co-CEO Matt Kramer announced his resignation in September. He said TFA is best served by a single leader “who can act more decisively, speak more authentically, and evolve more rapidly,” and noted that “I’m not a Teach For America alum, a teacher, a student of corps members, or a graduate of urban or rural public schools,” perhaps implying that he was a poor fit.
The number of applicants has decreased in recent years. TFA officials say the improving economy gives potential applicants more job opportunities. Critics say a backlash against the corporate-backed reform movement and negative public statements from disgruntled former TFAers may have caused the decline.
But as long as there are staunch supporters at the state and local levels, and schools eager to welcome corps members, TFA likely will continue to thrive. Even Kirylo, despite being generally critical of TFA, says corps members perhaps have a suitable role in filling short-terms gaps.
“In these schools where we’re having a hard time recruiting a new teacher right out of LSU, and if we get one, he or she may not want to stay a long time, there’s not much difference between a TFA [teacher] and someone right out of school,” Pujol says. “Sometimes, what TFA students lack in more formal training they make up for in their zealousness.”
TFA says students taught by corps members perform as well or better on tests than their peers. Which raises the question: If the TFA approach is so great, why have traditional education schools at all? Why not recruit every teacher based on subject matter expertise and put them through a five-week boot camp?
“I think it’s a case of not either/or but both/and,” Pujol says. “If I could get every smart, talented person who is committed to the future of young people to come and teach for me, I could train them myself.” But a teacher’s salary isn’t always attractive to such people, she adds.
Current corps member Silvana Labella says she has not experienced tension with non-TFAers at Lowery Elementary. She graduated from Temple University with a degree in social work and wanted to work with children, so Teach for America seemed like a good fit.
She says her training at Delta State gave her confidence for her first day teaching at Lowery. But like many young teachers, she struggled with keeping her class under control. Fortunately, she had some help with that.
She describes a TFA staffer sitting in the back of her class with an earpiece and a walkie talkie, coaching her through what TFA calls “no-nonsense nurturing,” a model that explains “how to correct behavior, continue moving your class [forward], and kind of divert attention from kids that might get upset,” she says. “It was really helpful.”
“Prior to my TFA experience, I never fully understood teaching as anything more than curriculum,” Labella says. She has since learned the importance of “teaching the whole child.”
After a full year teaching fifth grade math, she says entered her second year with a firmer grasp of the subject matter. She says she has built strong relationships with her students, other teachers and the administration, and feels more comfortable at school.
“I think one of the best parts is how much I fell in love with all of my students,” she says.
After this year, her stint with Teach for America is complete, but she has no plans to leave her school. She has found her career in the classroom.