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Stay in teaching or get out after two years?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2009 - Stay in teaching or get out after two years? Anyone who’s ever taken part in Teach For America, the program that places college grads in low-income schools, has wrestled with that question. 

But the question of the night Monday was this: Stay in St. Louis or get out after two years?

Each year, about 30 percent of Teach For America corps members who’ve fulfilled their two-year obligation leave St. Louis. More than half of all program graduates stay for a third year at their school. The rest stay here but switch schools, change careers or go to graduate school.

At an event held by the Regional Business Council, a consortium of presidents and chief executives of regional companies, all the talk was about retention.

“We’re getting talented people to come here for this program,” said Kathleen Osborn, executive director of the council, which financially supports Teach For America. “We don’t want people coming here from Chicago or Atlanta to go back home thinking there weren’t opportunities for them in St. Louis.”

Or, as Michael A. DeCola, president and chief executive officer of Mississippi Lime and the chairman of the council, put it: “We’re greedy. We want to retain this talent.” 

At first glance, the scene inside the visitor’s center at Forest Park resembled a typical job fair. Recruiters smiled inside their booths. Guests handed out business cards. People mingled around a table filled with food platters.

But at this event, the selling flowed in both directions. Second-year Teach for America corps members and recent program graduates talked about their career interests and academic backgrounds. Employers such as Brown Shoe Co., Paric Corp. and DHR International talked up their operations.

The way local employers see it, there are plenty of reasons for the Teach For America graduates to continue their careers in the city where most of them got their start. (The vast majority of teachers come to the program straight from college.)

Osborn’s pitch about why 20-something TFA grads should stay in St. Louis hit on some of the points you’d expect: affordable living, a tight-knit business community, good graduate programs. Scott Baier, executive director of TFA in St. Louis, said teachers who come here from other cities are impressed with the sense of civic engagement. 

Baier had his own sales pitch to employers: (paraphrasing) You want our corps members because they are high-achieving students and motivated workers. We’ve even done the screening for you. 

Companies have made hires based on networking they’ve done through this event, now in its third year. As would be expected, some recruiters this year came without jobs to offer right now.

It can take some selling to get young people excited about coming to St. Louis. Baier said a survey several years back of preferred placement cities for new TFA corps members showed St. Louis 29th out of 30. Yet even then the St. Louis TFA program had better-than-average retention rates, indicating some teachers had been won over by the city.

“That was before we put on the full-court press for retention,” Baier said.

I spoke with one TFA graduate who had grown to like working here. Laura Vilines is from Kentucky and came to St. Louis as an undergrad at Washington University. She said she "didn't really feel a connection" to the city as a student, but as a teacher in her third year at Imagine College Prep High School now feels "devoted to the community."

Vilines faces the location choice as the school year winds down. She has an offer from a graduate school out of state. She can stay on longer at her school. Or she can stay locally but change jobs. Vilines said she's leaning toward staying in St. Louis in some capacity. She spoke Monday to recruiters at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a charter school network.

Vilines is part of a strong Wash U.-to-TFA pipeline. Baier said about 9 percent of the university's graduating seniors apply to the program each year. Across the country, roughly 35,000 students fought for about 3,700 slots for next fall. That's a greater-than 40 percent increase in applicants from a year ago.

St. Louis will have a record 200 TFA teachers next year, 35 more than this year. Baier said there's room for more growth. And that's part of the reason why the Regional Business Council is trying to tap the program's alumni.

As for the issue of whether TFA graduates stay in the teaching field or pursue other careers? Critics of the program say that the low-income schools aren't best served by teachers who stay for two years and leave. Baier looks at it differently.

"As our alumni base grows there are more diverse interests," Baier told me. "If they want to stay and teach, we're all for that. But we also know they'll be advocates for education in whatever they do."

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