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Education

Teach For America Will Stop Placing Volunteers In St. Louis Schools To Focus On Alumni

Gavin Schiffres, right, started a charter school in St. Louis after he and his partner served as Teach for America corps members in the St. Louis area. Here, Schiffres works with a student at Kairos Academics during the school's first week on Aug. 15, 2019.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
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St. Louis Public Radio
Gavin Schiffres, right, works with a student at Kairos Academics during the school's first week in August 2019. Schiffres started a charter school in St. Louis after he and his partner served as Teach for America corps members in the St. Louis area.

Teach for America will no longer place recent college graduates in classrooms in the St. Louis region. Instead, the national service corps says it’s shifting to supporting the hundreds of alumni in the region still working in education.

The shift is a move away from what Teach for America is most known for — and sometimes chided for. For 30 years nationally, and 20 in St. Louis, TFA has placed recent college graduates, most of whom don’t have degrees in education or teaching certificates prior to signing on, in classrooms within under-resourced schools and paid to teach for at least two years.

“Given the complex education challenges in St. Louis, TFA believes that more experienced educational leaders are necessary to accelerate the pace of change for students,” Teach for America regional board members and staff wrote in a letter to alumni last week.

TFA insists the “pause” on new corps members is not an admission of defeat or step toward closing up shop.

“We see this investment into our alumni network as really a natural progression of our work over the last 20 years and now pivot to really helping position our folks that we have here already move into leadership, if that's what they desire, stay in the classroom and be excellent classroom teachers, if that's what they desire,” said Elizabeth Bleier, TFA St. Louis’ interim executive director, in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.

TFA has placed 600 volunteers in St. Louis over two decades. Half of them are still working in education, the organization said. Notable alumni include St. Louis Treasurer Adam Layne, as well as Gavin Schiffres and Jack Krewson, who started Kairos Academies charter school two years ago.

Charli Cooksey returned to St. Louis after college to serve in TFA before starting two education nonprofits, InspireSTL and WEPOWER, and serving on the city’s school board. Cooksey said she was mentored during her two years in the classroom and has worked with TFA since.

“They coached and supported me so that we could sustain, because it started off being a group of passionate educators who personally knew nothing about the business of running a successful nonprofit,” she said.

TFA will scale up mentoring and fellowships for alumni in the coming years, Bleier said. She pointed out that academic achievement rates in St. Louis have been low over the 20 years TFA has operated.

“When we see those kinds of large gaps in achievement, we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing, what should we continue doing?” she said “And what can we pivot and really invest in more.”

The move to stop placing volunteers in St. Louis is part of a national strategy change by TFA. Austin and central Florida regions also don't place new members, and others could follow.

TFA last year placed 50 corps members in eight St. Louis area school districts and charter schools. While TFA is not a huge source of new teachers, the change will take some water out of a recruitment pipeline that is already running at low flow. Of those 50 volunteers, 11 were placed at KIPP St. Louis, the second-largest charter school network in the city.

“We not only placed corps members in our schools, but we ended up hiring a lot of Teach for America alumni after they had completed their first two years. So for us, it is a loss,” said KIPP St. Louis Executive Director Kelly Garrett.

TFA is sometimes chastised for placing underprepared volunteers into difficult teaching environments, dooming them and their students to fail.

“There's no level of preparation that will ever prepare you for being in that classroom by yourself on that first day,” Cooksey said. “So I do think TFA catches flak for just the fact that it's just really hard being a teacher.”

About one in seven teachers quit classrooms across Missouri each year, according to the state education department, often because of low pay. Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, has lobbied state officials to enact additional teacher credential models to help with recruitment.

St. Louis has another alternative teacher recruitment program. The St. Louis Teacher Residency, launched in 2018, is designed for mid-career professionals to become teachers. The residents student-teach for a year while earning a master’s degree in education. It was founded by Laura Vilines, a Teach for America alumna.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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